When Roupenian’s “Cat Person” was published in the New Yorker, it quickly became a cultural phenomenon. It's unheard of for a short story to go viral, but "Cat Person"—through a combination of impossibly sharp writing and impossibly good timing—had done it. A year later, Roupenian's debut collection proves that success wasn’t a fluke.
The 12 visceral stories here range from uncomfortable to truly horrifying and are often—though not always—focused on the vicious contradictions of being female. Roupenian’s women are as terrified as they are terrifying; sometimes the violence comes to fruition and sometimes it doesn’t, but the possibility is always there, bubbling under the surface. In “Bad Boy,” which opens the book, a woman and her boyfriend take in a stray friend after a breakup and begin incorporating him into their sex life in increasingly sadistic ways. In “Sardines,” an 11-year-old girl—who, unlike most fictional 11-year-old girls, is depicted entirely without sentiment, big-nosed and meaty-breathed—makes a wish "for something mean" on a defective birthday candle and creates a monster. “Cat Person” and then “The Good Guy,” which follows it, both its companion and its opposite, are the heart of the collection—both chronologically and in spirit—as complementary investigations of gender and power. (Roupenian’s depictions of the dynamics between men and women are infinitely nuanced, but the very short version is: It’s real messed up.) “Cat Person” is told from the perspective of Margot, a college student, who's on a date with Robert, who is 34 and makes her feel at once very powerful and very small. “The Good Guy” follows Ted, a nice guy—who is not Robert but also not so different from him—whose relationships with women could be characterized as a dance of mutual contempt. (It is, of course, more complicated.) Some of the stories are drawn, with startling and nauseating detail, from life; others veer toward magical realism or nightmares. All of them, though, are united by Roupenian’s voice, which is unsparing and unpretentious and arrestingly straightforward, so that it feels, at times, less like you are reading and more like she is simply thinking for you.
Unsettling, memorable, and—maybe perversely—very, very fun.