sun 17/02/2019

Kristen Roupenian: You Know You Want This review - twisted tales | reviews, news & interviews

Kristen Roupenian: You Know You Want This review - twisted tales

Kristen Roupenian: You Know You Want This review - twisted tales

Nasty nuance aplenty in story collection from the 'Cat Person' writer, but empathy absent

Kristen Roupenian: 'the borderline between reality and fantasy is a chasm'Urszula Soltys

A one-night stand between a female college student, Margot, whose part-time job is selling snacks at the cinema, and thirtyish Robert, a customer, goes pathetically awry. It was disappointing, uneasy, perhaps more, and memorialised in all its edgy discomfort in Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”, published in the New Yorker in December 2017. The tale hit the #MeToo zeitgeist, charting a deeply unsatisfactory sexual encounter, where the girl just thinks it’s more trouble to stop than continue. The tale went ballistic, with something like four million hits on the net. And now it is the centre piece of Roupenian’s first collection of short stories in book form, a dozen in all, next – perhaps ironically – to another story of things not right, “The Good Guy”.

The good guy really isn’t: from high school on, Ted has unrequited crushes on girls he never understands, and spends his thirties as that sought-after urban creature, the unattached male, telling a succession of women that he does not commit. The conclusion here is deeply ambiguous: Ted lies in hospital with a glass shard in his forehead, a souvenir of his last lover hurling a tumbler of water at him when he breaks up with her. How badly injured he may be physically or psychologically is never clarified. There is a fracture line in the majority of stories Roupenian has published here: the borderline between reality and fantasy is a chasm.

Kristen Roupenian - You Know You Want ThisFreedom, it seems, can bring almost as much misery as restriction or oppression in human entanglements, although at least the participants can walk away with just bad memories. And Roupenian certainly supplies those, with twisted, ambiguous and noir endings, a kind of lugubrious violence. The arc of the first story, “Bad Boy”, is typical: a nameless young man has endless break-ups with his girlfriend, and the couple he comes to see to describe the ups and downs starts out slightly bored with the repetition. His heterosexual hosts warmly welcome him with apparent kindness even as they subtly mock. Their seeming attention to his emotional dilemma is flavoured by a knowing hypocrisy. They drag him slowly into sexual games, their own performance enhanced by their conviction that their guest hears all. They seduce him into participation, revving up his humiliations. The rituals are brainless, joyless and degraded, ever more perverted, relentless and ghastly. In just a few pages Roupenian drags us with her through the sharpness of her prose. The flinty realism of the early descriptions – the eye-rolling of the couple as they listen to the dreary emotional neediness of their guest – edges into a situation that is grotesquely and hideously out of control. Betrayal succeeds betrayal, who is dominating whom goes in and out of focus, and the end is truly shocking. The whole is only 11 pages.

These stories start out as conventionally recognisable before morphing into distress, misery and things even more horrifying. Roupenian writes with a sinister edge; what seems normal if kind of icky and unpleasant metamorphoses into a horror tinged with science fiction and fantasy. Ambiguity reigns. In “Sardines”, a children’s party is watched over by mothers; a game of sardines is invented; a miserable depressed and furious mother and daughter, destroyed to their core by the departure of the father for a twentyish girlfriend, feeling despised by their friends, create an appalling monster by wishing ill on all.

The characters not only range from boring to vile but are set in stone: there is no journey, simply an exaggeration of what is apparent from the beginning

In “The Night Runner” echoes of Roupenian’s own African experiences seem to underline a tale of a young American male teacher – a Peace Corps volunteer – unable to control a group of rowdy, unruly and strident teenage girls who make up the notorious Class Six in a small African village. Mocking, out of order, even violent, the girls terrify him, and whether it is imagination or something real, he is tormented by an invisible nocturnal visitor. He is unable to make sense of what is happening by day or by night – but again, how much is fantasy and nightmare, how much reality?

Roupenian’s laconic prose is persuasive, but the tales are far less so. In “Scarred”, a young female professional finds a book of spells hidden in her local library; sneaking it out, she goes through them one by one, conjuring a young male whom she traps in her cellar, as she achieves each wish for money, power, advancement that she can. She is gradually totally corrupted by the fulfilment of her desires and the baroque ending is cruelly vindictive both for herself and her victim. “The Matchbox Sign” does start out as a sensitive description of a youngish couple finding their way through choices of career and geography but veers wildly into fantasy when the woman is persuaded that a parasite is eating into her. In “The Biter” a young woman finds a way in adulthood to continue her passion for biting other people, a deeply unattractive habit she was forced by adults to give up when she was just four, in kindergarten. “The Boy in the Pool” is almost straightforward, the narrative of a friendship between Kath, Lizzie and Taylor, from schooldays to adulthood, predicated on an obsession with an old horror movie. The friendships change and mutate, shadowed by affection and dislike. But sympathy or empathy there is none.

These stories are fundamentally flawed, for all the characters not only range from boring to vile but are set in stone: there is no journey, simply an exaggeration of what is apparent from the beginning. There is a thrust to the narrative, but it is hard to engage when no character is empathetic; the main interconnections are folies à deux, trois or more. No-one captivates, no-one charms, no-one makes the reader care in any way. Why bother with these self-absorbed creatures, these horrible people doing horrible things to themselves and each other? The diamond sharp prose cannot disguise the sheer dullness of these profoundly unlikeable actors on Roupenian’s stage.

Freedom, it seems, can bring almost as much misery as restriction or oppression in human entanglements, although at least the participants can walk away with just bad memories

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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