You Know You Want This, the debut short story collection of writer Kristen Roupenian, sold for a mind-boggling amount and was courted by HBO for a TV adaptation largely on the strength of “Cat Person,” which set the internet aflame earlier this year. The story was a thrilling, hyper-specific realist look at the realities and emotional mechanics of millennial courtship, told partly through text messages and revolving around a prosaic aborted romance between the narrator and an older man. “Cat Person” went viral because it tells an old story cloaked in the guise of a new generation and dwells in subtly damning details. It depicts the emotional ambiguities young women experience in a way perfectly suited to the #MeToo era and which they have rarely seen reflected back at themselves so accurately. One perfect example of this reflection takes place as the story’s protagonist begins to regret the hookup she’d just initiated:
Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot thought: oh, no. But the thought of what it would take to stop what she had set in motion was overwhelming; it would require an amount of tact and gentleness that she felt was impossible to summon. It wasn’t that she was scared he would try to force her to do something against her will but that insisting they stop now, after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious, as if she’d ordered something at a restaurant and then, once the food arrived, had changed her mind and sent it back.
Roupenian is at her strongest when she indulges her talent for dissecting masochistic and relational power dynamics in a subtle, realist way, and “Cat Person” and one other story in the collection—“The Good Boy,” a long, semi-parallel story in the same vein, but told from the perspective of a male narrator—suggest a powerful, fully realized writer who has found her own voice, a little reminiscent in its icy distance to Joan Didion or Rachel Cusk but indelibly and resoundingly her own. Sadly, the rest of the stories in the collection don’t live up to the same standard, resembling much more exploratory or student work. A few stories have interesting conceits that fall slightly flat in terms of style, like “Bad Boy,” which revolves around an exhibitionistic couple who begin abusing the voyeur friend crashing on their couch, or “Death Wish,” a first-person story about a Tinder date whose deepest kink involves being punched in the face. Other stories indulge too much in Roupenian’s taste for a macabre, gruesome species of magical realism and end up resembling Lovecraft without his vividness or panache. “Sardines” is one of those—a girl’s pre-teen angst transforms all her birthday party guests into “one seething mass, a terrified and maddened organism, a puddle of sentient, erupting flesh, a dozen-eyed and many limbed thing” that speaks in a stream-of-consciousness moan at the culmination of the titular game. This is thanks to the efforts of a magical candle, which concludes the plot-hole-riddled story with “sparks, and chirps: deedledeedleDAH!”
Without the humorous undertone of R.L. Stine or the hard-bitten world-building of Steven King, the story feels absurd rather than nightmarish. An even more egregious example is “Matchbox Sign,” a patent rip-off of the movie Alien in which mysterious hives on the protagonists’ girlfriend reveal her to be a breeding ground for some kind of grisly magic slug.
These and other stories—including the charmingly incongruous “The Night Runner” or the satisfyingly short (and timely) “Biter”—reveal a talented writer thrust into the spotlight without having had the opportunity to truly refine her subject or voice. You Know You Want This is an uneven, albeit always readable, collection that suggests a patchwork of past work offered up in the wake of “Cat Person”’s justly deserved success. It is this reviewer’s hope that Roupenian’s debut novel, at which she is currently at work, offers us a more mature and nuanced look.