To Kristen Roupenian’s thousand literary injuries we can now add… perhaps inadvertent plagiarism. The New Yorker just indulged in a posthumous publication of Katherine Dunn’s “The Resident Poet”, and it’s eerily similar to Roupenian’s “Cat Person” despite having been written perhaps forty-five years earlier. Perhaps you don’t know who Katherine Dunn is, and I don’t blame you: she’s one of those obscurely-celebrated, literature-adjacent Boomers who seem more interesting in the rearview mirror, assuming said mirror is also being controlled by someone in her cohort. Her breakout novel of thirty years ago, Geek Love, is discussed by Kirkus like so: “Using drugs, insecticides and radioactivity, Al and his wife Crystal Lil, sometime geek, produce Arturo, a thalidomide child.” The older I get, the less patience I have with this sort of thing, this deliberate wallowing in the disgusting and frankly inhuman. Our modern society has evolved an insane preoccupation with the precise composition and quantity of the food we eat while simultaneously encouraging the wholesale and insensate consumption of trash media. What’s the Latin for unsound mind in sound body?
The New Yorker, of course, doesn’t see it this way. “But I already know,” Gen-X literature-adjacent person Naomi Huffman lectures the readers, “as well as anyone reading this, the reason that Katherine Dunn’s archive is full of work that wasn’t published during her lifetime and why it sat, untouched, for the first few years following her death: the supposedly enlightened institution of American literature has often overlooked the contributions of women. So many have had to wait to be heard. Now it is Katherine Dunn’s turn.” Seven of the ten top books on the NYT bestseller fiction list at this precise moment have been contributed by women; perhaps once Ms. Huffman’s “overlooking” is rectified we can have nine of the ten written by women, or perhaps ten of ten, for maximum diversity. Speaking for the American man, they’re welcome to take Stephen King’s current spot on the list, if they like, since King is also one of those people who requests that you open his book so he can vomit his filth directly into your mind. As a teenager I thought King was edgy and interesting, right up to the point in It where a pre-teen girl requests that she be gangbanged by her best friends and experiences two rockin’ orgasms in the process. I finished the book out of grim literary duty, threw it in a dorm hallway trash can, and never willingly considered King’s “work” again.
“The Resident Poet” is not close to being as awful as It was or Geek Love appears to be. It is depressing, and often artless in the bad sense of the word, but some of it is not unworthy of a brief examination, if only because doing so serves a greater discussion.
Here’s the plot of “The Resident Poet”: A college student has grown up with people calling her fat and making her feel bad about herself. As soon as she was free from her parents she engaged in a robust program of near-anonymous promiscuity, which she intends to continue and/or cap by having sex with one of her professors. He takes her in his VW Beetle to a hotel and then to a bed-and-breakfast so they can have a weekend consummation of their flirtation. The professor is shocked that the narrator still has a bit of a waist despite her weight; she is shocked that his penis is very small and very soft. They have bad sex, twice. Eventually she requests to be taken home. Both of them feel terrible about the whole thing.
The story is understood to take place in the late Sixties, when Dunn herself was in school, and is believed to have been written in the early Seventies. Here’s something I like about “The Resident Poet”: it serves as a strong counterpoint to much of the literature about professor/student sexual relationships in that era, almost all of which was written in a manner so as to imply that the union of male prof and female undergrad was pretty much the greatest thing since sliced bread and should be indulged in at all times by anyone who was eligible. While this may have been periodically true — I’m aware of a few happy stories with that particular beginning — one suspects that Ms. Dunn has a better handle on how it all-too-frequently went down. Certainly this poet/professor isn’t exactly Tom Cruise in middle age:
The spreading veins across his cheeks, the odd pits in the skin of his nose, the watery blue eyes, the secret weakness of his chin… His fat lips. The pleading eyes… This thigh is pudding. A pudding with a bone in it…. I’ve never seen him without his coat on before. He looks fatter, unhealthy… He has a big hairy belly and droopy hairy thighs and this soft little mush of a bag instead of a prick. I’ve never realized the difference that circumcision makes. It slides around easily in my hand. I can’t get a grip on it. He never does get very hard… His feet are fat, nearly square, with a thick pad on the sole and a layer of softness moving smoothly over the bones of the arch. No depressions, just a varicose vein running up the inside of one plump calf… I don’t like to watch him sleep. To see the feeble jointure of his hip and his paunch.
As with “Cat Person”, it’s not enough here that the man be merely unattractive. He has to be cartoonishly unattractive, almost deformed, in order to be a proper villain. Yet there’s an odd sort of pornographic charge in the way the ugliness is described; it’s the deliberate antipattern to the “Princess Daisy” school of romance novel where the physical perfection of the fellow in question is endlessly considered. It’s obviously done to make the unpleasant sexual acts which follow that much more horrifying, that much more degrading.
Is there a male-writer equivalent to this old-dude ruin porn? I suspect that we can see it in certain female characters, like Norma in Updike’s “Bech” series, who are physically attractive but who are absolutely repugnant human beings. There, too, the point is to watch the protagonist suffer because of the choices he or she has made. In “Cat Person” and “The Resident Poet”, a woman without much agency or sense of direction is basically tricked or convinced by a disparity of age or social position to have sex with a disgusting person. In Updike (and others) a man without much personal magnetism or force is seduced by a woman’s beauty then endlessly harried by her viciousness.
Why are the Bech books so much better than the Dunn/Roupenian stories? Part of it is the craft of the thing; Updike simply has a better command of the English language than do the literature-adjacents, and he understands the mechanics of storytelling in a way that they do not. That’s not the most important part, however. “Cat Person” and “The Resident Poet” fail for the same reason that so much of Peak TV is unwatchable, namely, a profound discomfort with ambiguity. Updike permits Norma to exhibit human qualities, redeeming qualities, even charm and wit. Because she is not a complete monster, she can be a complete character — and because she is recognizably human, we are struck all the more by the ways in which she undermines and frustrates Bech.
Mr. Lucas, the resident poet of the story, has no such ambiguity. He begins the assignation with Sally, the protagonist, by forcing her to squat in the damp footwell of a VW Beetle until they have left town. He continues it by attempting to coerce her into a blowjob-on-the-move, but Sally is unable to find his penis beneath his belly and in any event there is the gearshift of the Beetle with which to contend. The reader is given to understand that he is ugly, he is not charming, he is cowardly, he is a bully, and that he is incompetent both as a poet and as a professor. Immediately after having sex with Sally, Mr. Lucas begins wheedling her into setting up a threesome with another young woman to be found, and recruited, as soon as possible. “It occurs to me to laugh,” Sally notes. “I have an urge to ask him what makes him think he could possibly handle two women.”
Dunn’s and Roupenian’s unwillingness to allow even a shred of dignity or redemption to their ugly men may not serve the stories in question, but they provide us with an important insight into what distinguishes true literature from the literature-adjacent: it has humanity, and enough for everyone involved. Think of Lady Macbeth begging the spirits to free her from the restraints of her natural motherly kindness so she can perform the villainous tasks at hand, or of Tom Wolfe giving us a brief glimpse into Peter Fallow’s own personal misery before Fallow sets out to destroy Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire Of The Vanities. The accomplished writer trusts that he can display a villain in shades of grey rather than in the childish binary of black and white.
Better writers would have allowed the ugly men of “Cat Person” and “The Resident Poet” to display a smidgen of humanity. Just enough to avoid the fate of caricature or comic-book obviousness. Dunn and Roupenian can’t do this, I suspect, because they don’t trust themselves to execute it correctly. What if we end up feeling sorry for Mr. Lucas? Hell, we’re almost there already, what with this catalog of physical defects to shame Quasimodo. If we saw him overtip a struggling waitress or leave a note on a parked car after backing into it, the whole conceit might fall apart at its threadbare junctions. He might turn into Mr. Darcy or something like that.
All of the above being said, I’m going to give the nod to Dunn over Roupenian in this Battle Of The Literary-Adjacent Network Stars, because Dunn has enough humanity in her to at least make one of the characters recognizably human. Roupenian’s heroine is only briefly (and perhaps accidentally) self-aware, but Dunn’s is conscious of what she’s doing:
And I, Sally, having been mooed at by my peers, having skulked against walls and sat up nights searching through the Reader’s Digest for jokes to insert into the conversations of the following day, having been for too long involuntarily good, have tapped into unsuspected energies in my current project. I have worked my way through reluctant soda jerks, potential painters, a good pianist who is studying to become a bad psychologist, a travelling daffodil salesman, and now, here, tonight, I have searched for, if not precisely located, the cock of the resident poet. Maybe he’ll write a poem about me, or give me a passing grade in English. The painters did portraits of me, though they were just pastel sketches, convenient for one-night stands. I filed them in the left-hand drawer of my desk, separated by tissue paper. The pianist, a virgin until he appealed to me, wrote a tune and played it for me in the chapel. A bad poem would fit into the collection nicely.
Why, she’s just stacking scalps! She is feasting on the desire of these pathetic men, the same way that Roupenian’s protagonist noted that “The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got.” Dunn’s character is just willing to admit it to the world. With that in mind, we can compare the two endings. One is a cop-out which leaves everything in black and white, while the other allows us to see the dim possibility of ambiguity. Here we go.
“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”
“The Resident Poet”:
“Ah, poor Sally,” I mutter at my bleary eyes. Even when there’s no place left to be hurt, it seems there is something that can be diminished, whittled away. It will probably be weeks before I can even brag about this.
Full points for the ending, Ms. Dunn. May you accept the gracious and non-remunerative accolades of the New Yorker in the afterlife, and may you be comforted by this: you were not great, but you were much better than what was to follow.
Last week, I wrote about the curious paradox of improving cars to the point where they are no good.