Reading Note:
In the Land of Id
5 February 2019

I’ve just read an unfavorable — I really want to say nasty — review of a book that I’ve been reading with keen interest. The book is Kristen Roupenian’s You Know You Want This, a collection of stories that contains “Cat Person,” the electrifying account of a bad date that, in case you’ve been struggling without your reading glasses for a year, appeared in December 2017 in The New Yorker, when #MeToo was taking up all the oxygen in the room, and immediately caught everyone’s attention. What made “Cat Person” arresting to me wasn’t so much the narrator’s plight — she discovers that the man with whom she has agreed to have sex expects her to behave like a porn kitty — as the state of the man’s imagination, which I would describe as extremely degraded if that did not suggest a former, healthier condition. “Cat Person” suggested that a generation of men (at least one) has grown into sexuality with the idea that dirty movies in which women are barely distinguishable from inflatable dolls are humanly normative: this is how it’s done. Expectations are both overly-processed and inadequately self-aware. There is too much “thinking,” but none of it is about the right things. The fantasies that enable Roupenian’s men to achieve orgasm, no matter how tightly contained, seem malignant and dangerous: the longest of the stories, “The Good Guy,” had me not only thinking of Ted Bundy but feeling that I understood him. 

Lauren Oyler’s grumpy dissatisfaction with Roupenian’s collection — her review appears in the current issue of the London Review of Books (41/3) — never crystallizes in a discrete statement, but is diffused throughout her remarks. It is clear enough that Roupenian has missed or ignored an important point about feminism and sex, but Oyler doesn’t tell us what this point is. Which is no surprise. For fifty years at least, we have been waking up to the fact that everything that we were taught about sex for the last two thousand years was not the whole picture but only the male half of it; one can only hope — and I mean this seriously, not as a mockery — that it will not take another millennium to learn about the other half. After all, our recent discovery about men and sex didn’t actually involve learning anything about men or sex, except that sex is different for women. No one, I fear, is in a position to speak helpfully, much less authoritatively, about what women want. The most we can say is that, while most men seem to desire one thing, the interests of women are varied, and we may suspect that some women will find the desires of other women to be as alien as the desires of men. That this seems to be the case with Oyler’s take on Roupenian is suggested by the following fragment: “the stories are written in a smug tone.” Smug amounts to dismissal without a judgment. 

Reading Oyler’s take on the stories, I was aware that I myself didn’t really read them as stories. The sequence of events that leads Margot into Robert’s bedroom, in “Cat Person,” did not interest me very much; it was merely unpleasant. What interested me was the unveiling of Robert’s pathetic failure to grasp (or even to guess at) the erotic possibilities of generosity. Roupenian’s stories are essentially portraits. Composed in words, they necessary unfold over time, both the reader’s and the narrative’s, but the climax is not an event but rather the display of a muddled, flawed character. The picture of this character is composed rather like a painting: there is no moment of surprise, no unexpected reversal. Because of the subject matter, it’s true, the tales are embedded in the possibility that terrible things might happen, but even where terrible things are alleged to happen, as in the sensationally well-put-together opening story, “Bad Boy,” they happen only in the reader’s imagination, and appear to have no mortal consequences. If we worry about Margot’s safety in Robert’s house, we come away with the vague feeling that we have given Robert more credit than he deserves.

Twenty years ago or more, You Know You Want This would have been hailed — or denounced — as a book about people behaving badly. (Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, for example.) Bad behavior is certainly a salient in Roupenian’s stories, but it strikes me as confused rather than intentional. Lust is a swamp in which Roupenian’s people lose their way, mostly during adolescence, when pathways are beaten in shame and ignorance. Having stated the current justification for writing about sex (it enables analysis of gender and power), Oyler hauls in a colorful metaphor, writing that Roupenian “attempts to jump on this bandwagon and at the same time tip it over. She ends up driving it in a circle.” But it is Roupenian’s characters who are stuck in circles. For all their analysis and experimentation, they cannot figure out how reconcile their carnal desires with their everyday personae. They joke and tease; they interrogate with irony. But they are never funny, nor even amusing. Because the cancer that afflicts them is static and will not kill them, we cannot even feel particularly sorry for them. What we feel sorry for (or about) is the world that has failed to guide them, that has left them to their own inadequate devices. The consolation of musing on some eternal (or at least persistent) human condition is also denied us: these stories are very much about the pathologies of Now, of possibly allergic reactions, say, to the smartphone. Many amazing things have become possible in recent years, and we are still so amazed that we are powerless to prevent ourselves from being destroyed by them. The bandwagon is full of striking faces that may turn out to have the horribly discordant monotony of clowns. 

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