July 30, 2020: “Bad Boy” by Kristen Roupenian

Good evening to you, Story366!

With my semester winding down and my son’s summer school term winding down—both ending tomorrow—I’m pretty wiped out today. I got up to send the Karen off to work and have been at it since, reading stories, writing comments figuring grades, proctoring online exams. Today’s also the first day for those desperate emails, someone wondering if they can still turn something in, someone asking about a deadline, someone else swearing I said their final projects were due _________ instead of ________, wondering if they should drop the class—on the last day —because they don’t think they can finish it by _________ (meaning that second __________, of course). I’ve become one with my chair, fearing that if I stand, I’ll either collapse because there hasn’t been blood in my legs since noon, or the chair will call me back, tell me I can’t go, that we’re one now, that I’ll be like this forever. I’ll be pretty happy at this time tomorrow, 95 percent done, but then again, I’ll be write here—you can hold me to that thought.

Tonight I read from Kristen Roupenian‘s 2019 collection, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories, out from Scout Press. Roupenian is pretty well known for her story, “Cat Person,” which appeared in The New Yorker—more on that in a bit—which led to lots of conversations about a short story, as well as a seven-figure, two-book deal for Roupenian. You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories is the first book of this deal, and aside from “Cat Person,” this is the first time I’ve read any of her work. And you know what? It’s really, really great—I love this book.

Firstly, though, have you ever seen a title like this, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories? My assumption is that everyone wanted to get “Cat Person” into the title, as that’s the famous story, the one that’s going to get the Google hits, its recognitionableness simply proned to sell more books. That’s understandable—you got to cash in while the iron’s hot. But then someone, probably Roupenian, didn’t want to call it Cat Person and Other Storeis, so they came up with this, two titles. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to write about this, but as an editor, writer, and publisher, I think about this kind of thing and like to point it out.

Next, I read “Cat Person” a couple years ago, not long after it came out and started all those conversations. I don’t want to spend all night talking about that, but I immediately assigned it to my classes, as I felt they needed to be in on these conversations. Really, it’s not often that a short story causes the kind of press, the kind of debate, that “Cat Person” caused. I felt it was my job to point that out, to have those conversations in my classes. If I didn’t, it would be like if when that major eclipse happened last year and some astronomy professor didn’t mention it in class; “Oh, yeah, I read about that,” he’d say, then go back to whatever else he was be doing instead.

To be honest, I learned a lot more from my students when we talked about that story. I was at least smart enough to know to be quiet, to listenbecause I certainly didn’t want to pretend I knew what was going on, dictate what the correct politics were, or simply say something foolish, either embarrassing myself or indicting myself. I think I understand that story a lot better now, understand the perspective I need to understand, but here that story is, from The New Yorker, and you can judge for yourself.

So, going into You Know You Want This, did I expect every story to be that controversial, for me to question my own feminism, to send me to those key confidantes, women who could help me interpret? No. I mean, I hope not—that would be exhausting. Instead, what I encountered were some pretty stories, stories nothing really like “Cat Person,” stories I’ll tell you about now

The lead story, “Bad Boy,” is a we-told story from the perspective of this couple. This couple has a friend who just broke up with a girlfriend, for the third time, and he’s pretty torn up about it. He comes to their place, has dinner, has some drinks, cries his eyes out, and before long, is falling asleep on their couch. They tell him he can stay as long as he wants but are surprised when he takes them up on it, is still there in the morning. They’re cool with that, but they did refrain from sex the night before, this friend of theirs in the next room, the walls so thin.

The guy doesn’t get any better and stays more night, stays until he pretty much lives there. They give him dinner, hang out with him, and at night, they go to their room and he pulls out the pull-out. Only after that first night, they don’t let him keep them from having sex—they have sex every night, their friend like fifteen feet away.

From there, Roupenian only escalates the situation. Soon, the couple realizes that they’re not only willing to have sex with their friend so close, listening in, but they like sex better that way. They get louder and louder, rowdier and rowdier, and more daring, too, leaving the door cracked, then open, sneaking into the living room for something in just a towel or their underwear. They know he knows what’s going on, and they love it.

Everything comes out into the open when they’re drunk—like you do—the couple not only broaching the subject, but taunting their friend about it, bullying him into a corner. This couple is not only getting off by having sex in proximity of this man, but they’re throwing it in his face. One thing leads to another, and perhaps in the natural order of things, the friend is soon invited to come join in. Sadly, though, it’s not in a loving way, nothing all that sexy or beautiful: They treat him like a sub, bossing him, depriving him, and humiliating him, all for their own pleasure and none of his.

Are they better or worse than the awful girlfriend the friend broke up with, the woman who pushed the first domino? Well, probably ,but he’s at least getting naked with consenting adults, which hadn’t been happening with his girlfriend. That’s a pretty low bar in which to judge this situation, especially when the domino chain becomes an avalanche. Things happen that are so depraved, the protagonists easily morph into the antagonists, villains we feel sick saying “we” for as we read their pronoun and speak their thoughts.

“Look at Your Game, Girl” is about a twelve-year-girl living in California in the nineties who likes to listen to her Discman in the skate park and read, hoping the skater boys will notice her. One day a man, who she mistakes for a skater, approaches her and starts talking music. He returns another day with a present, a cassette tape. When she says she doesn’t have a cassette player, he returns a week later with a crappy but funtional Walkman. Turns out, the grungy old pop is Charles Manson’s album and the guy wants her to borrow it, but then wants her to meet him at the park to return it—at midnight. The girl doesn’t do it—she knows better than to meet a strange man in the park at midnight. The same night, however a local girl is kidnapped from a sleepover and goes missing (and eventually, shows up dead). Our hero of course thinks it’s her Charles Manson fan. She feels a terrible fear, and a terrible guilt, thinking it should have been her instead of this other girl.

I skipped ahead to the end and read the last story, “Biter,” about Ellie, who bites. She gets into all kinds of trouble as a kid, until someone shames her from biting. Jump ahead twenty years and Ellie hasn’t biten anyone since kindergarten, but she’s still dying to. She has a boring office job writing spam emails, but daydreams about biting her coworkers, how it would happen, how they’d react, what the consquences would be. Enter Corie Allen, a handsome young elf-man who looks like a piece of prime rib to Ellie. From there, Roupenian has a lot of fun deconstructing Ellie’s biting and we get to read all her thoughts, how she just about convinces herself that she’d be doing everyone a favor if she just bit Corie Allen; besides, what are the odds, if she just went up to him and bit him, that she’d get in any real trouble?

I relished the opportunity to tell you about these stories from You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories, as wow, they all are such well crafted tales, all great concepts, all stories that cleverly, perversely, and effortlessly handle their material. Sometimes these protagonists are villains, sometimes they’re victims, but often enough, it’s kind of hard to tell, and that’s what makes this book so special, what will keep it burnt in my mind for a long time. Kristen Roupenian can flat-out tell a story, some of the best I’ve read this year.

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