The title of Kristen Roupenian’s first short story collection, “You Know You Want This,” is as absorbing and inviting as it is provocative and rancorous. It’s the voice of someone that knows the power they wield, a person who is not afraid to use it to manipulate. This bold acknowledgement of one’s sexual prowess is something you’d expect to see in a raunchy message, maybe, or on a film screen. Anywhere but the cover of the fresh literary sensation’s first book.
If the daring extorted by the cover is an indicator of anything, it’s of the fierceness to follow. “You Know You Want This” is a compilation of twelve short stories, with “Cat Person,” Roupenian’s viral 2017 piece, smack in the middle. But if readers crack the Helen Zell Writers’ Program graduate’s newest publication expecting another stoic, extra-literary story of the world like that of “Cat Person,” they are expecting wrong.
To a grandiose effect, Roupenian decides to open the work with something brash: the sexual psychosis and abuse of “Bad Boy.” Roupenian refuses to hesitate in introducing her breadth as a writer, boldly declaring herself on the page in a take-it-or-leave-it cleanse. This is commendable. “Bad Boy” — if readers survive its horror — is a fantastic story. No matter how despicable the scenario, Roupenian leaves questions unanswered and tempts the reader onward, a choice that few will be able to turn down.
Following the initiation “Bad Boy” provides, the collection wanders off mostly into story hybrids of horror and literary fiction. Most of the stories are successful, with only a few failing to reach splendor. Three consecutive stories near the center of the work seem to fumble, like “Sardines,” a story which lacks the inflexible and surefire plots of the rest of the collection. It reads as misplaced and incohesive with the tone of the remaining work. While the writing of such stories maintains their quality, the structure falls flat. The endings jump away from the central plot they maintained for their first half, almost as though Roupenian ran out of ideas and scribbled in some gasp-worthy ending so that the middle stories matched the rest of the collection.
But between “Cat Person” and the eight other sensations in “You Know You Want This,” the collection is easily forgivable for these lapses. “Cat Person” in itself is so wonderfully true to life, so fearlessly blunt and unforgiving, that it nearly absolves the collection all by itself. Works such as “The Good Guy,” “Death Wish” and “Biter,” jaggedly stand out, too. In the former, Roupenian returns to the fable of social media dating, only this time making it the female counterpart who knows so badly what they want — to be harmed a great deal prior to sex. This story highlights what Roupenian does best: She flashlights over the murkiest possibilities of humanity, baring the vile and uncomfortable. This has more effect than mere discomfort and intrigue. It is through such reveals that Roupenian is able to pinpoint exactitudes of the world that innocuous fiction cannot achieve. She offers a character that elicits recoil in readers, only to seduce them into wandering back into narratives with her grimness.
Marked by the accomplishment of polished writing, this intrepidness attains exceptionality. Impossible to be bored with, the stories pry at the very edges of what fiction endangers to do. “You Know You Want This” navigates the desire to hurt and be hurt, the realm of lust, infatuation, harassment and, yes, the politics of being a mother of a pre-teen. And it is remarkable.
Any readers expecting regurgitations of “Cat Person” (or any New Yorker story for that matter) are sure to be surprised in the best of ways by the brilliance and brashness Roupenian is able to accomplish. “You Know You Want This,” steers through venereal, disturbing and absurdist worlds, daring readers to keep their eyes open. Roupenian settles into her place as principal antagonist by way of her narratives, as if challenging readers at every turn: If you can stomach it, look.