You Know You Want This examines the world through many modes: feminist, erotic, and fairy tale, to name a few. Roupenian's first short story collection employs both fantasy and realism, using the uncertain space in between to generate frisson. She excels at pinning down fraught interactions and fleshing out the psychology of characters stuck in those situations. Without sacrificing detail, she manages to leave space for interpretation. As a result, the reader of You Know You Want This may do a lot of thinking and still end up unsure of exactly what happened or how to feel about it. Yet this is all to its credit, as the stories are packed with enough entertaining and extraordinary material to keep the mind busy well after the book is finished.
In 2017, one of the stories in this collection went viral. Much has been said about “Cat Person” since it was first published in the New Yorker, coinciding with the momentum of #metoo. You Know You Want This is well worth experiencing on its own merits and offers plenty that is new. But without lingering too long, it is interesting to see how certain choices produce tension and make “Cat Person” the well-crafted experience that it is.
The close third-person POV in “Cat Person” follows Margot as she navigates contemporary dating culture. At face value, it is a story of romance gone sour. Readers uncover information along with Margot, and for much of the story Margot views her date Robert sympathetically. It helps that Margot is not an idealized nice-girl. She sees Robert's flaws and sometimes thinks rude things and gets nervous trying to manage his feelings and expectations. By observing Margot, we see just how much time and mental energy she puts into considering the relationship and her potential partner. The ending lands so well because both Margot and the reader are taken aback by Robert's final actions. If the story had been told from Robert's point of view, it would have lost some of this tension and reveal. Robert does not seem able to read Margot's emotions accurately. His version of events, judging by his final messages to Margot, is colored with frustration and anger (p. 98). But Roupenian does not give us his perspective, instead using Margot to capture psychological nuances that reveal women's universal struggle with sexuality and intimacy.
If “Cat Person” was the right story told by the right character at the right time, one may wonder if the rest of Roupenian’s stories hit as close to the mark. All deliver sharply observed detail, doses of sly humor, and rich characterization. But there are a few cases where the plot and narrative tension is lacking. For example, in “The Good Guy,” another story about romantic relationships, the main character, Ted, presents a different challenge. Ted is perhaps Margot's antithesis. His jaded view of dating and his disdain for his ex-girlfriends put him in a very different mental place. From the first page, it's apparent that he's accepted cheating as a part of who he is. During a breakup conversation, the mechanisms of his thinking rise to the surface in a sudden outburst: “I'm just the tool you're using to hurt yourself” (p. 102). He delivers this line and his ex erupts in rage; then the story jumps into an extended flashback. Most of the plot occurs in the past, addressing the question of how Ted became who he is: “good old friendly, utterly dishonest Ted” (p. 108).
As he grows up and finds himself single, Ted learns to be manipulative, becoming desperate to get sex that he doesn't seem to enjoy. He creates a façade, a persona of harmless goodness, that lets him get close to women he desires. For most of his school years he is obsessively, secretly in love with one girl, Anna, and dreams about marrying her while dating another girl, Rachel. Eventually his duplicity is uncovered, and it ends with Rachel throwing a beer in his face. This breakup scene starts a pattern that he follows for the rest of his relationships.
The framing story of present-day Ted interrupts the flashback in short scenes. Adult Ted continues to be unsympathetic to the women he's dumped and unable to take responsibility for his part in their feelings. By the end, the angry girlfriend has sent Ted to the ER with a head injury. While drugged, he hallucinates “a tribunal” of his exes, led by Anna, which descends upon him in judgment (pp. 147-148). The image of Ted in the ER, surrounded by a ghostly ensemble of girlfriends past, is both too fantastic and too cheesy. Ted's origin story before this moment is realistic and convincing and could easily have stood on its own without the jarring final images. While “The Good Guy” is an excellent character study, it is not precisely satisfying as a story.
Typical of Roupenian's work is the important function that the sexual aspect of life bears in her narratives. Often sexual encounters are used to develop character or generate plot; however, the sex scenes can work against those goals as well. On the surface, the plot of “Death Wish” consists of two characters meeting, negotiating, and having sex. Yet “Death Wish” diverges from the things that made “Cat Person” and “The Good Guy” effective.
Since the sex is a foregone conclusion here, it provides no driving momentum (p. 201). In its place there is only a sort of unpleasant voyeurism, which veers into gruesome territory when the narrator wonders if he can “punch someone symbolically” and then carries through with that action (p. 207). The first-person narrator feels more like a caricature than a fully fleshed-out person; he breaks the fourth wall by addressing questions to the reader, asking for opinions on an event that's already happened (p. 205). His clumsy attempts at humor work against the serious and graphic tone of the events he's recounting. The voice of “Death Wish” turns the reader into an auditor, as the storyteller ruminates on what he might have done differently. The impression is of a wasted rhetorical exercise. “Death Wish” might have been a devastating story, if told from a different POV or character. As things stand, it operates mostly on shock value.
“The Night Runner” is the only story that clearly involves non-white characters. Its protagonist, Aaron, is a white man working in the Peace Corps in Kenya. His presence as a Texan in a Kenyan girls' classroom initiates a cultural clash that takes an odd, supernatural turn. Aaron's Kenyan colleagues urge him to use physical force to control his class. During a particularly bad outburst, Aaron picks up a switch to strike a student then becomes almost physically ill and cannot carry out the punishment (p. 55). The Kenyan students then take full advantage of his inability to strike them. At the same time, he experiences a nighttime haunting by a creature known as the night runner.
While the story as a whole seems to side with Aaron, another character offers a counterpoint to his perspective. Grace is a former student of the school where Aaron teaches. She takes Aaron under her wing, and chides him for being too serious (p. 53). In her view, what's happening to him is a series of annoying pranks; but to him, it's dangerous harassment. Though Aaron himself tries to deny it, the story sets up the Kenyan students as his enemies, and even his friendship with Grace turns out to be more complicated than he realized. But upon close reading, the real antagonist turns out to be the Peace Corps. Grace expresses surprise throughout the story at Aaron's ignorance of local customs. Aaron tries to explain that he had eight weeks of training before his posting, but Grace interprets this to mean he sat in a classroom being taught “every possible detail about Kenyan life” (p. 52). That was certainly not the case, and Aaron's lack of understanding compounds the difficulties of an already tough situation.
The students continue to antagonize him, to the point where he decides to quit and return home early (p. 56). Even though the Peace Corps had “left him almost entirely alone at his site,” once he expresses a desire to leave, he is granted it without fuss, which makes him question the value of what he is doing there in the first place. Roupenian, always reluctant to make easy judgments, does not resolve anything for the reader, simply pointing out the brokenness of a system. Everywhere in this collection, the same intelligent eye scrutinizes the social and culture structures that we operate within and take for granted.
Engaging with the tradition of fairy tales, for example, “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” opens with a familiar formula: “Once there was a princess.” But something is different straight away: given the power of choice, this princess discovers that she can't make a decision. She rejects every eligible man in the kingdom. Her royal parents reach their breaking point and demand that she choose a husband (pp. 63-64).
That evening, a cloaked stranger visits her, and she rapidly develops feelings for him during this single night. In the morning, she announces her decision to marry the stranger. Her parents shake their heads and the royal advisor rips off the man's cloak to reveal a mirror, a bucket, and a bone. He explains, “We've done nothing with him‚ this is all he ever was” (p. 65). The advisor goes on to assert that the princess fell in love with her own reflection, that she is incapable of loving anyone but herself, and that she will never be satisfied in love (p. 66). At this point, the tale appears thematically akin to the myth of Narcissus.
Broken-hearted, the princess picks a random nobleman, and they marry. Her parents die and she and her husband become king and queen. At some point the king discovers that he loves the queen. Then the queen confesses her love for the fake suitor to the king. He tries, for a moment, to address her feelings as if they were valid (p. 68). But she replies with the formula the royal advisor taught her: “I am capable of loving nothing but a distorted reflection of my own twisted heart” (p. 68). At this point the story has shifted again, and it is no longer a morality tale about the perils of narcissism. While there are still echoes of Narcissus gazing at his reflection, Roupenian's princess lovingly gazing at the fatal contraption of mirror, bucket, and bone adds another layer of resonance.
What really works in this style of narrative is the productive frustration it causes. Ambiguity reigns, and there is no simple takeaway. The supernatural may or may not be intruding on the everyday. Events and images seem replete with meaning, but that meaning is a moving target. Regardless of what genre Roupenian employs, the quality of observation and the psychological depth of the writing sinks into the mind and leaves an impression not quickly effaced.