April 14, 2018 § Leave a comment
For a few days at the end of last year, people talked about a short story the way they talked about Stranger Things or American Vandal, by which I mean as part of the seamless cloud of conversation; you became identified, momentarily, by whether or not you had read Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker. You wondered if you got it, if other people took away the same reactions as you. You imagined the point of view of Robert, or a whole universe-sequel breaking out surrounding Tamara, the roommate. You tried to think of the last time you ate, or even saw a box of, Red Vines.
I had only seen a few links—as in three, maybe five, from writers on Twitter whose taste and judgment I respected—before I sat down to read “Cat Person,” and by then I had already been signaled for aspects to look out for. What jumped out to me was the natural ambivalence on the part of Margot, about fourteen years younger than Robert but in many respects more mature. The story’s momentum is kept up not just by Robert’s persistence but Margot’s embrace of the attention and her willingness to keep the joke afloat. There’s the psychological up-and-down of her feeling like she’s winning or losing:
When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie she agreed right away.
And then there’s all the energy one has to spend in thinking up texts, choosing emojis—anything that makes sure the line doesn’t go dead. When characters in fiction send emojis and the writer describes the emoji in words (“Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts”), then I am not sure what we are doing as writers, but I sure don’t have any better solution. Relationships have always required an ability to read faces and translate code, but now the faces aren’t in front of us and the codes are made up of actual code.
The line that crackled the most, in my humble opinion, came after the bad sex:
Then, out of nowhere, he started talking about his feelings for her.
Out of nowhere, as though we were enjoying the quiet, as though the contract were settled.
“Cat Person” got people reading short stories again, for a while. Poor Zadie Smith, New Yorker stalwart, had to follow Roupenian’s act like Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill going on Ed Sullivan’s stage right after the Beatles, attaining nowhere near the same level of virality. Sadly, the buzz that “Cat Person” generated seemed to last only as long as the one story, bumped from Internet ubiquity by that plums-in-the-icebox meme, but it did help land its author a seven-figure book deal.
I happened to be in the middle of reading The Best American Short Stories 2017, edited by Meg Wollitzer, toward the end of last year when “Cat Person” showed up. There are two hookup stories in BASS ’17, each told from the perspective of an ambivalent female. It was hard not to read them without thinking of “Cat Person,” given that part of the explanation for the effusively laudatory response to “Cat Person” was that it gave acute insights into modern male-female relationships with a refreshing sensitivity to the burdens that women carry in handling and reacting to delicate male personalities.
In Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies,” the male personality is a shuttle driver who chats up the protagonist, a professor in the title subject, after she lands in Kansas City for a conference. He indicates himself as a Trump supporter (“You would never catch me voting for Shrillary”) and comes to the hotel of Nell, whose boyfriend recently dumped her to elope with his young graduate student, after she can’t find her driver’s license.
I recognized in “Gender Studies” the same focus that “Cat Person” devoted to the microcalcuations of conversation. The driver asks Nell if she has a husband, then a boyfriend, and when she tells him no she “immediately regrets it—he gave her two chances, and she failed to take either.”
The driver, names Luke, is a predator. He wangles his way into having a drink with Nell, arriving after his shift in street clothes, including a sleeveless hooded shirt that “makes her cringe.” He orders a Jack and Coke and, to convey that a deal is taking place, tells her, “You ask me, you’re getting a bargain.” He chats her up, and she talks herself into being interested: “Beyond her wish to get her license back, she feels no fondness for the person sitting across the table, but the structure of his life, the path that brought him from birth to this moment, is interesting in the way that anyone’s is.”
There hovers over the story a shadow of threat and submission. Luke refuses to hand over the license until they go up to her room, and in the elevator he nuzzles her neck and “it feels really good; when they are configured like this, it’s difficult to remember she’s not attracted to him.” The reader senses that Luke is up to no good, has too little to lose, and that some internal compromise needs to resolve itself within Nell, but she plays along for a good chunk, right until they’re engaging in oral sex in her hotel room.
The other dating story in BASS ’17 is “Gabe Dove,” by Sonya Larson. “Gabe Dove” is told in the first person from the point of view of Chuntao, who meets the title character “when [she] was sad and attracting men who liked [her] sad.” The sad dates leading up to Gabe Dove are characterized as “some opening acts. Some vaudeville.” A friend sets her up with Gabe Dove, from her church: “And I guess—because Angela and because church—I was expecting a white guy.”
In fact, Gabe Dove is Burmese, and one of his first questions asks Chuntao, “So, what kind of Asian are you?” He is a doctor who still lives cheaply and a little slovenly, but seems excited to have Chuntao around as a person to eat gourmet donuts (from a bakery down the street) with. He takes her to his tiny apartment and they drink Campari:
But I tell you: it was nice. The refrigerator humming at my back, the jittery ceiling fan, and me thinking, I don’t even have to speak, I can just keep lowering this syrupy red medicine in my mouth. Things will happen.
There’s a sharp contrast here to “Cat Person” and “Gender Studies,” not just in reception but mood: Gabe Dove turns out to be a mostly nice guy with some quirks, but perhaps too intense for what Chuntao wants. The same burden placed on Margot from “Cat Person” and Nell from “Gender Studies” is not placed on her (“I didn’t even have to speak”). After sex, Gabe awkwardly apologizes for being hasty:
But I wasn’t sorry: I had wanted him to hurry up. I wasn’t sure what to make of him holding my waist like this, easing the glass from my hand and lowering it to the nightstand. He thanked me. “Thank you,” he said, bending to kiss my shoulder. “Thank you for being here.” For being here? I didn’t know what to say.
The relationship that was never supposed to be a relationship heads south when Chuntao’s self-destructive tendencies get the better of her. That breakdown is what the story is ultimately about, which means that it doesn’t put as much thought into the careful wagers of self-worth that “Cat Person” and “Gender Studies” do.
Part of the wager of “Cat Person” is Margot’s resolve not to let Robert spread outside of the mental compartment he occupies. Even the flirtation is laid out in work-hours:
…over the next several weeks they build up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, riffs that unfolded and shifted so quickly that she sometimes had a hard time keeping up.
And then, after a few dates and some mediocre sex and then out-of-nowhere talk about feelings, Margot asks Robert how old he is.
She could sense him in the dark beside her vibrating with fear.
“No,” she said. “It’s fine.”
“Good,” he said. “It was something I wanted to bring up with you, but I didn’t know how you’d take it.” He rolled over and kissed her forehead, and she felt like a slug he’d poured salt on, disintegrating under that kiss.
She looked at the clock; it was nearly three in the morning. “I should go home, probably,” she said.
“Really?” he said. “But I thought you’d stay over. I make great scrambled eggs!”
The horror of the story comes with the simple fact that Robert can’t take a hint. He keeps texting, needily snarking, as though he and Margot have a thing, and with that assumption, Margot somehow bears some kind of responsibility for his feelings. I think the story went viral precisely because this depiction of a fragile male ego is accurate and familiar and went absent in fiction for so long. Neither Luke nor Gabe Dove are given the same chances by their respective creators to embarrass themselves, because Nell and Chuntao do the work of discrediting themselves first. For all their uselessness and insufficiency, Luke and Gabe at least get the message that their time is up.
Some readers characterized “Cat Person” as a horror story, and on reflection it has all the rhythms of good horror, including the manipulation of psyches and the impossibility of true escape. There’s a filmic presence in these stories: Margot meets Robert at a movie-house concession stand, and Gabe Dove and Chuntao take in a cheesy horror movie. Roupenian, in addition to the lucrative book deal, has also recently sold a script for a horror film to A24 (the production company behind Lady Bird and Moonlight), a work that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “script shows heightened sensitivity to character development and social dynamics in a subversive way.”