And they say that writing doesn’t pay: Kristen Roupenian received $1.2 million dollars as an advance for her FIRST EVER BOOK, You Know You Want this after her story “Cat Person” went, as they say, viral. The book is, apparently, a bit of a hash and it’s not selling terribly well. You can read a rather savage review by the infamous “Delicious Tacos” here; as with Clive James’ infamous Princess Daisy evisceration, the criticism is significantly more accomplished than the source material. I could attempt a review of my own, but it would be stymied both by the excellence of Tacos’ piece and the minor, but in this case relevant, fact that I have not read the book.
Which won’t stop me from talking about “Cat Person” a bit, because I have read it and because it’s free for all of you to read. The story is trash, little better than the vampires-and-billionaires vomit you see being eagerly scarfed-up by every middle-aged woman beneath every rental umbrella on every beach during every summer, and bearing the scars of a thousand table readings at a dozen writers’ workshops — yet, as Clive James reminds us, “It takes bad art to teach us how good art gets done.” Therefore, let me flap this bug with gilded wings, &c., because there is a fascinating, and important, lesson buried right in the fetid guts of the thing.
“Cat Person” is a story, in short, about a twenty-year-old woman who has sex with a thirty-four-year-old man despite her better instincts and who later suffers some anxiety as a result. The central character, Margot, is that oldest of female-character tropes: The Woman With No Personal Agency Or Reponsibility Whatsoever. It’s a little surprising to see this character written by a woman, but presumably we need to accept this sort of thing as we transition towards a genderless Utopia. Nor will we be enjoying any of the witty repartee which distinguished distaff writers from the Brontes forward. This clunker appears in the first paragraph, and serves as a warning sign of sorts:
“That’s an . . . unusual choice,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever actually sold a box of Red Vines before.”
Nobody speaks like this; the Ellipsis Of Disapproval is a currently fashionable linguistic tic for female-identified Twitter posts or DMs but it rarely sees the light of day in real-world conversation. To make matters worse, or at least more unpleasant, the flirtation which follows is straight out of a RooshV post or “set” by the erstwhile magician and pickup artist, “Mystery”:
He was very clever, and she found that she had to work to impress him. Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did… 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.
Male feminists wept. Margot seems to have no sense of direction; here, as in the exchanges with her family detailed elsewhere in the story, she is entirely reactionary. Are we meant to see her as broken? Damaged? Why doesn’t she date, or speak with, any one else? Why is she vulnerable, for lack of a better word, to this person who is so far away from her social group? Is it because she is unable to fit in with the other students? A better writer would offer us some clues here, but Ms. Roupenian, like the nice lady who writes the Twilight novels, seems determined to leave her protagonist in tabula rasa status. It’s okay, because we get to the real stuff relatively quickly. Turns out that Robert isn’t a fellow student. He is thirty-four years old, and he seems fatter and more distasteful to Margot as a consequence. Yet she goes through with the awkward dates to follow, because…
Maybe, she thought, her texting “lol r u serious” had hurt him, had intimidated him and made him feel uncomfortable around her. The thought of this possible vulnerability touched her, and she felt kinder toward him than she had all night… “I can’t believe I’m crying because I didn’t get into a bar,” she said. “You must think I’m such an idiot.” But she knew he didn’t think that, from the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.
Perhaps you have heard the variously-attributed quote that goes something like: “The desire of the man is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.” Our predecessors knew this intrinsically, but Ms. Roupenian would perhaps not have encountered the idea in her gilded-cage education or the various struggle sessions which, taken together, make up a Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. Her independent rediscovery of the principle constitutes the meat of “Cat Person”.
By her third beer, she was thinking about what it would be like to have sex with Robert. Probably it would be like that bad kiss, clumsy and excessive, but imagining how excited he would be, how hungry and eager to impress her, she felt a twinge of desire pluck at her belly, as distinct and painful as the snap of an elastic band against her skin.
Clive James would have had a field day with that last part — but I come to praise Roupenian, not to bury her. Kind of. Anyway. It is now time for Margot and Robert to have sex. Insofar as we have seen Robert descend into what is called “beta behavior” over the course of the story, we can assume that he will be quite bad in bed, an assumption which is completely validated. Yet our heroine does not call a halt to the proceedings, because even if the act itself is miserable, there are compensations:
He looked stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a milk-drunk baby, and she thought that maybe this was what she loved most about sex—a guy revealed like that. Robert showed her more open need than any of the others, even though he was older, and must have seen more breasts, more bodies, than they had—but maybe that was part of it for him, the fact that he was older, and she was young.
As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.
The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got.
This portion is done well; after the fake banter and the deranged trawl through multiple miserable dates, I had to confess that my desire to see Ms. Roupenian succeed at something was approximately equal to Margot’s pleasure at being thought desirable. Perhaps I am giving her more credit than she deserves — but at the very least she is being honest. Things derail a bit during the obligatory bad-sex description, of course. I’ve noticed that today’s young women writers absolutely adore describing bad sex in much the same way that the late Robert Heinlein could not keep himself from wandering off into group-gropes in the course of creating his final works. They have a powerful need to show the inability of men to satisfy women. The anti-feminist aspects of the core premise at work — that men are responsible for pleasing women in bed — always escape them. In any event, there is power in the refusal to be pleased. It is not for nothing that the most despicable of pornography depicts women eventually enjoying the act of rape; that is a raw statement of power (and delusion) on the part of the writer. Refusing to be pleased is oppositely, but similarly, powerful for Margot, and for Ms. Roupenian. It is a social signal. I once worked for a dealership sales manager who liked to say, “I wouldn’t get out of bed for less than eighty grand a year.” The purpose is the same. Margot is unable to be aroused by a man as weak, and confused, as Robert. She can’t come for a soft-bellied fellow with hunched shoulders. That makes her powerful, after a fashion.
The most perceptive paragraph in the story occurs next, and it deserves a complete quote:
Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her.
“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful yet hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say, “And then he said, ‘You make my dick so hard,’ ” and the boy would shriek in agony and grab her leg, saying, “Oh, my God, stop, please, no, I can’t take it anymore,” and the two of them would collapse into each other’s arms and laugh and laugh—but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.
For just one moment here, the author is fully, brilliantly, conscious. It makes the entire story worth reading. In this moment, we see the author, and her character, realize the ridiculous, almost pornographic nature of these imagined desires. I could spend ten thousand words discussing this passage and what it says about self-deception. Luckily for you, dear reader, Riverside Green is not a scholarly publication, so we’ll continue without that.
From there, it goes downhill very quickly. Margot is “saved” from Robert by male friends who were mysteriously absent earlier in the story but who serve to reinforce Margot’s general desirability, then a female friend steals her phone and uses it to “break up” with Robert because, as we have already seen, Margot is almost entirely incapable of making her own decisions. Consider, if you will, that the convenient omnipresence of useful friends serves the same purpose in female writing that a hidden ability in hand-to-hand combat always serves in action movies — it’s a lazy way of moving the plot along while entertaining the consumer. The story ends with Robert sending Margot a series of increasingly desperate text messages:
“When u laguehd when I asked if you were a virgin was it because youd fucked so many guys”
“Are you fucking that guy right now”
…and we’re done. Somebody paid $1.2 million dollars to have the rights to more of this? And then somebody else paid for the movie rights? It seems incredible, using the original sense of the word. Beyond credibility. As much as I like to make fun of “young adult” fiction, I can at least acknowledge that it performs the salutary purpose of getting today’s sub-literate Millennial dippy-doos to pick up a book and let their lips do the mumbling as they read. What’s the purpose here? Surely there is no component of social commentary to it, as there was with the work of Philip Roth or Tom Wolfe, nor is there an exuberant sense of narcissistic ecstasy like what one gets from Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying.
The best theory I have is that Ms. Roupenian’s efforts are much like the books of sermons published, and read, with such frequency during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They say all the right things and they conform utterly with the prevailing opinions of the times. Nothing is Margot’s fault. Robert is triply a villain, for having the audacity to be thirty-four years old, being bad in bed, and not possessing the grace to see himself out afterwards. Were this story to be written again in 2019, we would surely find out that Robert owns a MAGA hat. These are not fully realized characters. They are mere cartoon caricatures in the leftist versions of a Jack Chick pamphlet.
Someone with more time on their hands than I currently possess could perform two great acts of trolling with regards to “Cat Person”. The first would be to write a sex-reversed version of the story where the woman is fat and hairy and therefore undeserving of love and attention. See if you can get a major magazine to publish it. (But don’t hold your breath.) The second would be to write, and publish, an intentionally tone-deaf review of the piece where the text is evaluated the way it would have been in 1960: as a story of a helpless waif victimized by a powerful older man. Because that, at its heart, is what Ms. Roupenian has written. It’s a period piece. Just imagine Margot as a secretary and Robert as her caddish but disgusting boss. Point out how completely helpless our protagonist is. She exists in a world without feminism. Maybe that’s the point. Isn’t that why “Mad Men” and similar shows are so popular now? Having immanentized the atheist eschaton in The Current Year, does our oh-so-woke ruling class secretly wish for a return to those bad old days? Do they wish for that return because it would give them a chance to struggle, or because it would give them a chance to yield? Does it even matter, so long as this return brings with it the renaissance of that wicked old male desire, for which those benighted old moralists believed women yearned?