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From parasites to nonconsensual biting, oddity and violence abound in “You Know You Want This,” the debut short story collection from Kristen Roupenian, who catapulted to fame after writing “Cat Person.” That story, a relatable study of the pitfalls, manipulations and self-delusions of modern dating, was published in the New Yorker in December 2017, rapidly went viral, and landed Roupenian a seven-figure, two-book deal. (She’s tight-lipped about book No. 2 but confirmed it’s a novel.)
In this collection, Roupenian’s writing is fast-moving. The plots are difficult to predict. Certain stories are rooted in horror, others in hyperrealism. In all, there’s an unshakable sense of unrest, the creeping feeling that something awful is about to happen.
Here are excerpts from four stories, along with the framework underpinning each tale.
“We only got worse after that. He was like some slippery thing we had caught in our fist, and the harder we squeezed the more of it bubbled up through our fingers. We were chasing something inside of him that revolted us, but we were driven mad as dogs by the scent.”
In “Bad Boy,” an unnamed couple comforts a buddy after his breakup, letting him crash on their couch, taking him out to meals and doling out advice. This seems familiar, almost mundane. That is, until the couple’s tender loving care warps into sinister fascination — they become obsessed with their friend hearing them have sex, then eager for him to join in on bedroom activities. Manipulation follows, as does cruelty.
“In all the stories,” Roupenian says, “I’m interested in questions of power.”
“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.”
If you read “Cat Person” when it broke the Internet, you probably recognize these lines. College student Margot, the 20-year-old protagonist, and Robert, in his mid-30s, begin casually dating. In one much-discussed scene, Margot realizes that the version of Robert she mentally constructed is far removed from the real man. She’s unenthusiastic about sleeping with him, but feels that she’s crossed a threshold — it’s too late, in the moments before sex, to extricate herself. That prompted conversations about the way women are socialized to please; the gray area where bad, but seemingly consensual, sex resides; and the deep discomfort when dates go awry.
“Before ‘Cat Person’ was published, but when it had been accepted, I was like, how can it be my life that I am having a story appear in the New Yorker, my dream, and it’s one-third sex scenes? Who would have anticipated that?” Roupenian says. “I am still shocked by that fact.”
Sex — much of which is unnerving — factors into many of her stories, evidence that Roupenian is scratching at some deeper truths.
“I do like writing into discomfort,” she says.
Sex is one such space. “I, like everyone, talk endlessly about sex with my friends, but I do feel like there’s still big swaths of experience that remain unprocessed and un-thought through.”
“I feel like there’s a very narrow version of sexuality, and especially female sexuality, that I read and hear people talk about,” she adds, “and so that left it as a space to be confused by and uncomfortable with.”
“Ellie was a biter. She bit other kids in preschool, bit her cousins, bit her mom. By the time she was four years old, she was going to a special doctor twice a week to ‘work on’ biting. … As an adult, though her active biting days were behind her, Ellie still indulged in daydreams in which she stalked her coworkers around the office, biting them.”
Ellie bit others often in childhood, but she knows that won’t fly in adulthood. When a new, attractive employee, Corey, starts working at her office, many women are drawn to him. As is Ellie, but her urgings aren’t romantic. She’d rather chomp him. To bite or not to bite — that is the question permeating the darkly humorous story. In one scene, Ellie dons pajamas, pours herself a glass of cabernet and lists reasons not to bite her colleague. The twist ending is strongly reminiscent of #MeToo, even though Roupenian wrote the story before the movement.
If stories are writers’ offspring, this one may be Roupenian’s favorite child.
“I just have a lot of affection for that story,” she says. When she penned it, she thought, “this is the kind of story that I want to be writing. It’s dark and sort of extreme but also, I hope, a little bit lighter, a little funnier.”
“On Sunday night, he wakes to an empty space in the bed beside him. He walks out to the living room and finds her on the couch, surrounded by crumpled tissues, each one stained with a little red blossom of blood. ‘I can’t sleep,’ she whimpers. ‘It’s like something is crawling in there, under my skin.’”
Bites appear all over Laura’s body; she’s constantly itching and soon becomes convinced that there’s a parasite living inside her. This complicates the already tense relationship with her boyfriend, David. When they see an older male doctor, he is inclined to disbelieve Laura, thinking her symptoms signify mental illness. No doubt, this story fits the horror bill, but it’s also commentary on the way women’s pain is often institutionally dismissed, diminished and muted.
“The best and most effective horror, specifically, but almost all plot-driven high-stakes stories have to do that,” Roupenian says, and by that, she means, “they have to kind of lure you in with this idea that it’s not a totally foreign world, then fully destabilize you.”
Roupenian’s appetite for horror will soon move from page to screen. She sold a script, “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” to A24, the company behind indie darlings such as “Lady Bird,” “Moonlight,” “The Lobster” and “The Witch.”
Before the whirlwind that was “Cat Person,” she wrote “Bodies” because she’d “heard that if you want to break into movie-writing, it’s good to write a horror script, because they can be made for almost no money and there’s a contingent of fans who will see any movie in the horror genre.”
The script features some familiar elements: a gang of friends, a cabin in the woods and an innocent activity that turns sinister. The pals play “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a real-life game that Roupenian describes as a cross between hide-and-seek and Mafia, in which a covert “murderer” can eliminate, or “kill,” other players while their eyes are closed, and participants have to guess the identity of the assassin.
In reality, the game leads to tiffs about who can be trusted. In the film, “people are actually dying.” Roupenian says:
“I’m a huge fan of the grossest, goriest slasher movies, so it’s pretty fully in that genre space.”
Also forthcoming: HBO’s anthology series, currently in development, based on “You Know You Want This.”
When Roupenian read scripts adapted from her stories — “Scarred” and “Sardines,” both featured in this collection — the experience, she says, was “surreal.”
“I was fascinated, and I was also kind of grossed out, and I thought oh, that’s the feeling that I’m giving to other people, but I rarely get to feel it myself.”