In the last decade, a small but mighty contingent of young female writers has been putting out novels and short story collections that examine what it’s like to be a young woman with all its messy nuances. Ottessa Moshfegh crafts weirdo protagonists looking to give up control of their lives in order to find themselves. Catherine Lacey writes of women that have lenses and expectations applied to them, personalities assumed and prescribed by suitors seeking solace in the fantasy of love, not its reality. Halle Butler’s office workers pretend to be excited about bettering themselves socially and financially when it actually withers them inside. Alexandra Kleeman writes about the surreality of being a modern woman, stitching her characters into works that are constantly threatened by unknown gothic menace, the unseen wolf at the door of life. While each writer is distinct in her depiction of being a 20- or 30-something woman in the age of polyamory and Instagram, they’re unified in their desire for a lack of control, or an inability to have it.
In January of this year, Simon & Schuster’s Scout Press released Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, a collection of stories that gained hype based on her popular New Yorker story, “Cat Person,” which focused on a bad date between a stock college girl and a stock mid-30s creep, complete with bad, erectile dysfunction-centric sex. The salacious details and disgusting dynamic of the story embedded themselves into the expectations of the collection, which offered some of that pulpy pleasure, but mostly investigated the ways in which we try to gain control of ourselves, our situations, and the lives of others. While the press surrounding the book lumped Roupenian in with other female heavy-hitters currently at work, it’d be a stretch to say her collection fits squarely into the exploratory space of her peers. Instead of writing about the search for the self via combustibility, Roupenian writes about the female perspective from a different vantage point: How do women control the lives of their friends, lovers, and selves not out of fear, but out of necessity—be it selfish or in the service of good? How do they take control of the stories they live, especially in a world where men threaten to dominate?
In some of the stories, the reader is treated to the “women behaving badly” narratives that populate the work of Ottessa Moshfegh, Catherine Lacey, and the like. However, unlike Moshfegh and Lacey, who inject their plotting with wild humor and existential loneliness, Roupenian makes her characters vicious, even if their intentions are to do no harm. In the story “Bad Boy,” an unnamed female protagonist describes the increasing amount of power she and her boyfriend exerted over their friend, a nameless sad-sack male with a great capacity for getting drunk, but no ability to stand up for himself. It’s never explained or implied what drives the need for control, but it moves from the realm of kink to deadly obsession in just 12 pages. At first, the pushover friend is harassed by the couple, who test his limits for abuse, partly out of boredom, but also as a means of taking control of their sex life. After the friend acquiesces and begins watching his friends in bed, they begin setting boundaries on his involvement, sometimes incorporating him as an ersatz third member of the relationship, and sometimes using his attention to reignite their monogamous expression.
When he tries to cut off contact, they hunt him down, enter his apartment, and force him to kill and rape the woman he’s in bed with. Roupenian’s narrator says “He was like some slippery thing we had caught in our fists, 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.” While it’s suggested that this control was the only way for the couple to brook a stale patch in their relationship, the way the power dynamic works—the couple needs the friend to enjoy sex; the friend needs the couple to provide direction, even if it’s harmful—is nuanced, raising interesting questions about control and privilege. In “Bad Boy,” the narrator is disinterested in the feelings and concerns of her friend, but more importantly, seems to feel emboldened by his willingness to cower and bend to her and her partner’s demands. It would be easy to dismiss the story as one about two bad individuals taking advantage of a wayward friend, but Roupenian is getting at something more. Her narrators and protagonists don’t simply push or reckon with the boundaries of power, they delve into the murkiness of what it means to be in control, and how to be ethical when in that power position.
Roupenian’s story, “Scarred,” for example, features an unnamed female narrator that conjures up her literal dream man in her basement via magic. At first, she’s frightened, suspicious that it’s a demon she’s summoned. But as it becomes clearer that her conjuring is bound to the circle of salt she’s made, she slowly takes from him, bit by bit, until she has nothing left except his literal heart. Alexandra Kleeman and Ottessa Moshfegh both have stories that play with a sense of the fantastical or antiquated (“Fairy Tale” and “Brom” respectively), but while those stories are imbued with a sense of odd dread or foreboding, “Scarred” feels tragic and lamenting. Like the narrator of “Bad Boy,” the conjurer can’t help but destroy this person who has given some electricity to her life. Unlike that narrator, she struggles with the burden of yielding her power over him, saying, “I gave him a pillow to go with the blanket, a pair of shorts, one of those little camping latrines, as much water and good food as he wanted, as long as he cooperated. ‘Please don’t,’ he said when I came back, but what would you have done?” Here, the amenities are meant to distance the narrator from the pain she’s inflicting on her captive could-be soul mate. This is furthered by her proclamation that she eventually “stopped cutting up his arms,” taking instead to drawing “the knife as lightly as possible across his back and bandag[ing] him up afterward.”
These decisions are meant to reduce the physical harm being done, but they also allow the narrator to enter into a kind of caretaker relationship with her victim. While bandaging him up, the narrator promises her spells will make both of their lives better, and that she will take care of him and love him as he deserves. Initially, Roupenian’s narrator begins spellcasting to conjure an ideal mate that will worship her despite her flaws, but the author subverts the sexual captivity narrative by bringing into question the value of desire versus becoming desired. As the narrator puts it after becoming beautiful herself, “Given that I had myself fairly well convinced of his fundamental unreality, it came as a surprise, how much I enjoyed the look he gave me then —desired it, desired him. Now that I had my own beauty, my own set of tricks, I could let down my guard a bit.” As she accrues more power in her own life, her desire for her dream man dissipates, and when she eventually kills him to finish the last spell in the book, she notes, per the spell’s promise, “I would find some other love, my own heart’s true desire.”
While there are fantasy aspects to the parable, Roupenian is again writing about what control provides us, and the struggles that come with trying to justify it. Like the narrator in “Bad Boy,” there’s no deep exploration of the whys and wherefores of the protagonist’s desire for perfection. The reader is given no sense of how attractive or unattractive she is prior to the spells, nor of how bright and successful she may be. In the vagueness of these things, readers are able to project themselves onto the unnamed characters and speculate about what holes power can fill and the value of companionship and true love.
In “Boy in the Pool,” Roupenian explores the literal economics of power: how the raising of price points for increasingly degrading acts impacts control. For Taylor’s bachelorette party, her friend Kath hunts down Jared, an actor from an erotic B-movie they used to watch as teenagers. It’s suggested that Kath is in love with Taylor and believes she can win her friend’s heart by making her oldest fantasy—sex with Jared—a reality. Everything comes to a head when Jared initially refuses to go along with Kath’s idea: to recreate a swimming pool scene from the film with Taylor. In order to buy his compliance, Kath offers him more money. Immediately, Jared strips and jumps in the pool.
Here again, there’s admiration of the male body, but Roupenian quickly turns her narratives away from sex to get at something more eerie. While Jared is hamming it up, seducing Taylor and the rest of the bridal party with his long body and beautiful eyes, he’s unaware of his limitations. While Kath thinks she’s paying for sex, buying the actor in order to gain ground with her crush, what she’s really purchasing is power for her friend. Soon, Taylor pushes him underwater and holds him there until she’s satisfied. What the bride-to-be—who has suffered a series of bad relationships—really wants is to gain control of the actor who symbolizes her last potent and positive memory of a man. When she releases him, seeing him pearled with water and gasping for air, she says, “I think that’s enough for tonight.”
Always Roupenian starts with expectations and seemingly clear plotting before complicating the narrative with lenses of control. Often, the subject, almost always male, isn’t aware of those lenses, or is powerlessness to escape or turn away. In “Matchbox Sign,” the protagonists, a couple named Laura and David, are controlled by the same force—a parasite that may or may not be real, living inside of Laura. If nothing else, Roupenian should be applauded for tackling the subject of Morgelon’s Disease, a topic last written about by Leslie Jamison in “The Devil’s Bait.” The disease, a psychosomatic disorder that leads individuals to believe there’s something living inside of them when there’s not, allows Roupenian to write about the limitations of love, as well as the control it can exert when nothing else makes sense.
David and Laura are at odds with one another, not over the validity of Laura’s poor health, but about the nature of her condition. While Laura believes she’s infested with a parasite, David isn’t sure what’s wrong, even as she crawls on the floor of their apartment to search for bugs; sees her body become marked with bites, welts, and scratches; and watches her bag small eggs to take to the doctor. Ultimately, Roupenian draws a parallel between the parasite inside of Laura and the feeling of love. For most of its 18-page run, the story’s focus is lenses of control in relationships, with Laura constrained by both the unknown creature inside her and her relationship: her decision to put her ambitions on hold for David’s career; the budget spreadsheet used to track their spending, her desire to both be happy and make David happy. In effort to find happiness, she begins taking Depakote, which causes the woman David fell in love with to disappear.
All relationships struggle to allow the individuals involved freedom and independence, but Roupenian takes this into the realm of body horror, with Laura’s parasite breaking through her arm as David tries to rip it from her and provide visible confirmation of her suffering. In the last sentences, the parasite hooks into his cheek, enters his skull, and, much like love, “pulses through his bloodstream, swimming with unerring instinct toward his heart.”
Unlike the jump into the great unknown her peers force their characters to make, Roupenian lets her creations vie for a control that will break their hearts. In her estimation, it’s not about what we want, but how often that blinds us to the powers we have, and to the powers acting upon us. It’s important to read characters who are burning down their lives and searching for answers to unknowable questions. But Roupenian reminds us that these things come with a cost. And that there’s a value in knowing oneself, even if that self isn’t a version you like or need.