In Dec. 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” was published in the New Yorker. Three days later, the story was viral.
“Cat Person” polarized the internet. The story was heralded by many women and condemned by many men — just read the account on twitter named “Men React to ‘Cat Person’,” with over 6,000 followers. The story explores the underlying gender dynamics in modern relationships through Margot, a college-aged woman, and Robert, an older man. Roupenian’s skin-crawling description of Margot’s headspace during a sexual encounter introduces an uncomfortable discussion around a woman’s seemingly “trivial” experience, an experience that happens to more women than not, but often goes unacknowledged.
Roupenian trusts her readers completely, allowing room to fill in the blanks regarding characters and setting. Perhaps this trust is what created a legacy for “Cat Person.” Roupenian’s characters could be me, they could be you, they could be anyone.
This trust carries into Roupenian’s collection of short stories, “You Know You Want This,” released on Jan. 15. Her preoccupation with sex, gender and power dynamics persist through the collection. She captures the use and misuse of empathy, the thrusting of desires on women and women’s reclaiming of these desires as their own. There is room for her stories to resonate with any reader who reaps the consequences of gender, making the collection especially profound in today’s political moment.
Roupenian read from her collection at Literati last Monday. Every seat was filled and the standing room claustrophobic — some people stood behind her on the steps to listen. “I live here,” she laughed as she adjusted the microphone, “this bookstore is one of my favorite places in the world.”
Roupenian read “Look at Your Game Girl,” a story that she does not publicly read often. It’s one of her most personal stories, one that is a little more autobiographical than her others. Listening to the story was anxiety-inducing in the way it was supposed to be. The story is intense in the most subliminal way, encapsulating a girl’s coming-of-age. She interacts with an older, invasive man, who holds something like admiration for Charles Mason and the Family. The man walks a fine line between innocence and cause for concern for the girl. We feel her resulting confusion, her inability to trust herself, her perpetual reasoning and overthinking. Most of all, we feel her realization that the world is a scary place.
This realization resonates with most women, especially in the context of what Roupenian names the “vague male threat.” In “Look at Your Game Girl,” Roupenian pinpoints the adolescent detection of seeing danger where there is none and not seeing danger when there is some. She weaves the overt observance and overthinking of young girls into the same fabric as their vulnerability. As a result, the confusion of her character is visceral.
Through hearing Roupenian read, I was pulled back into my adolescence. I was forced to face the inexplicable paranoia and fear that plagued me during my coming-of-age. I was forced to contemplate when those emotions were misplaced and when they should’ve been placed, but were not. Did the old man at the gas station smile at me because he was friendly? Is this car going to follow me home?
As she read, many nodded in understanding. I was not alone. The experiences Roupenian encapsulates are things unacknowledged but familiar, and she confronts them head on.