(Last) Weekly Roundup: Hey All You Cool Cat(Person)s And Kittens Edition

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.

“Cat Person”:

“Sorry”

“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”

“Are you”

“Are you”

“Are you”

“Answer me”

“Whore.”

“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.

20 Replies to “(Last) Weekly Roundup: Hey All You Cool Cat(Person)s And Kittens Edition”

  1. AvatarNewbie Jeff

    “The accomplished writer trusts that he can display a villain in shades of grey rather than in the childish binary of black and white.”

    …and for the rest, there’s CNN, MSNBC, NYT, WaPo, HuffPo, BuzzfeedPo, etc., where not only are the writers not banished to obscurity for failing to detect humanity in their subjects, they’re actually rewarded with greater stature and prominence for stripping from their targets as much humanity as they can.

    Reply
    • Avatarstingray65

      Good comment, but to give the mainstream media their full-measure they also use their “news reporting” to make their Leftist heroes into faultless Gods who can do no wrong while saving humanity from itself, which is actually quite a feat when talking about flawed people like “our next President” Joe Biden, “move-on” Bill Clinton, “lion of the Senate” Ted Kennedy, and “no scandal” Obama. Heck, the NYT even made Joe Stalin into a hero for his “reorganization of the Ukraine” and won a Pulitzer for it in the 1930s.

      Reply
  2. AvatarJohn C.

    This was really great. Both the talentless woman subbing for literary greats and the Datsun 810 coupe subbing for interesting cars. There was a controversy on “the Voice” tv show a few years ago when the Aerosmith guy said that if a young Bob Dylan appeared on the show he would be sent back to the cornfield. The other judges quickly labeled him a racist and he was fired. A prescient racist.

    Reply
  3. Avatarjx

    You’ve never played Sally’s game, where the rules were utterly inaccessible to you and the best lap’s debasement was the whole story of all the races, unless you have, which is a story I don’t think you’d share. Dunn seems ahead of her time here, if described in the old-fashioned way.

    Reply
  4. Avatarstingray65

    Wow it seems Chick Lit is evolving. Used to be that the handsome, brave, and caddish male hero rescued the fair maiden from a dire predicament ranging from an evil-stepmother to a burning building and was rewarded by winning her heart and body as they go off riding into the sunset with the heroine making a diligent and thoughtful attempt to tame and domesticate her man (for his own good). Now it seems we get unattractive sluts feeling empowered by seducing totally unattractive protagonists, and afterwards she rides into the sunset alone while expressing her feelings about the whole sad experience. With such a wide range of deep characters and innovative and awe-inspiring plot devices it is no wonder that feminists get upset when female authors are not getting the full measure of literary praise and honors they deserve from the misogynist world of literary critics. Maybe it would help if the female authors added bit more realism by having their slut heroines accuse their insufficiently appreciative and skilled lovers of rape or sexual assault/harassment just so they can see them fired/expelled or jailed, or perhaps build suspense for the reader by waiting 35 years for the heroine to publicize her accusations just as the former lover is about assume a conservative position of power or win a lifetime achievement award from a revered institution. Just think of the possibilities for this genre…

    Reply
    • AvatarOne Leg at a Time

      Ms. Dunn (assuming that was her preferred honorific), was quite prescient. As you noted, this is basically the way a not insignificant number of #metoo stories began – with someone regretting a sexual encounter.

      It is little surprise that this drek had no mainstream success at it’s time. At least Erica Jong’s protagonists enjoyed the sex.

      This generation of the “She-Womyn Man-Haters Club” in academia will elevate this to “true literature”; until SJWs notice the lack of diversity and tear it all down again.

      Reply
  5. Avatarstingray65

    Interesting essay about car quality and choice, but perhaps you overlooked one increasingly important aspect of quality. Certainly modern cars no longer rust out in 4-6 years, and modern motors and gearboxes can typically go 150,000+ miles without major repairs, but what about infotainment systems? It seems that many modern car buyers and the younger generation of used car buyers care more about infotainment qualities than traditional vehicle attributes such as 0-60 times, mpg ratings, seating comfort and capacity, or even non-screen related aesthetics. Will a 7 year old CUV with a dead infotainment screen, or a system that is incompatible with the iPhone 23 be scrapped due to high repair costs or lack of buyer interest?

    Reply
    • AvatarOne Leg at a Time

      That is a really good question – are these vehicles outliving their electronics? And is there a requirement for the makers to update the firmware, or will they just ‘brick’ after a decade of use?

      I don’t particularly care about the infotainment part of the system, as long as it has an “Aux” jack; but don’t most cars run their climate control from that screen, as well?

      Reply
      • Avatarstingray65

        Tesla and Volvo run just about everything through the screen, so if the screen dies, seat and mirror adjustment, climate adjustment, navigation, radio, etc. will not be functioning or at least adjustable. Nothing goes obsolete faster than electronics, and when electronics run the whole car a dead proprietary screen means a dead car.

        Reply
        • AvatarJohn C.

          On the Volvo, they don’t even give you a printed owners manual any more, the only access to it is through the screen. Which is of course only accessible siting in the car with the engine on. When mine was new, I couldn’t figure out how to engage the autopilot. It turned out to be buttons on the steering wheel.

          Reply
  6. Avatarhank chinaski

    Having read neither, the takeaway for both ‘Cat’ and ‘Poet’ would seem to be “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member” , and a healthy dose of projection at their own physical shortcomings. One or both are probably bulemic. Or cutters.

    In contrast, Delicious Tacos, who describes only himself in that manner. Buy his new book, if only for ‘The Nightingale’.

    Do leased luxury Euro imports qualify as ‘bad cars’, with a Logan’s Run expiration date of 4 figure post warranty repairs?

    Reply
  7. AvatarNoID

    Now look what you’ve gone and done. I just added “Geek Love” to my reading list. I hope I hate it as much as I’m expected to.

    Reply
  8. AvatarJustPassinThru

    Ah, as you were evolving in your literary education…so was Stephen King evolving. King was never a serious writer in the way Tom Wolfe was; but I admired his turn of phrase in his early works. How he could write his swears with polysyllables. How he wrote like people THOUGHT. There was a realism in that…no doubt you’ll be saying “So, what?” to yourself? Thing of it is, you had it drilled out of you, probably before you ever put pen to paper.

    King’s is the literary genius of the child of the broken home. That, of course, was in his first years. Later, as his alcohol and drug use reached lethal levels…he contented himself with telling the same story, over and over, mechanically. It was obvious all inspiration was gone from it…I’d heard it said that most of his recent regurgitated trash novels were in fact written by his wife.

    But what you describe here, is what happens when the publishing industry is consumed with, driven by, Identity Politics. Poorly written tomes, but written by someone who has all the boxes checked, all the subjects (sex, personal ugliness, abuse) looked for, and in a negative way. And portrayed in two-dimensional fashion.

    And they wonder why books today are not selling. I’m not. Fiction is unappealing. Nonfiction is written to preach. Always with ONE viewpoint to push.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I think you’re right on most or all counts, but if I’d taken the time I used to read King and used it for something else I’d probably be better off today.

      Reply
      • AvatarJustPassinThru

        We can all say that. If I’d just gone down to the Conrail yard, after high school, instead of mucking around with Pre-Law in various universities, I’d have been better off…because the Conrail yard is where I wound up, anyway, almost two decades later. We can all second-guess choices.

        But I recall your essay of several months ago, bemoaning the “TOTALLY….AMAZING” wordsmithy of today’s generation of auto writers. What gave you the knowledge to construct proper grammar and choose synonyms, was probably your literature classes. What gave you the ability to write in a conversational, engaging way, about autos, auto racing, auto sales, and women…probably came from elsewhere.

        Maybe not a little of it came from pre-drug-fog King potboilers. I understand your revulsion at It – that was a threshold, where King crossed lines that he never should have.

        Reply
  9. AvatarJMcG

    I read about thirty pages of the first Game of Thrones book. Then I got up and threw it in the kitchen trash can where it belonged. The fellow that wrote that doesn’t need any room in my head.

    Reply
  10. AvatarThirdOwner

    I was reading this, and thinking: “Why can’t my high-schooler’s English teacher be like Jack? Why can’t he teach English Classics and composition instead of teaching social justice causes using modern texts by talentless but favored authors?”

    Reply
  11. AvatarGuns and Coffee

    When I look at the advertisement, I cannot help having a pet theory that Datsun or Nissan (or whatever), deployed a corporate spy to sleep with an executive over at Ford in exchange for Car Designs that didn’t make the cut. The 280Z was obviously an in-house design, but am I alone in seeing the ghosts of Escort and Mustang from that era in the Stanza and 200SX, respectively? It’s more entertaining than describing it as an early example of the design group think demonstrated by the modern examples of FordJeepExplorerGrandCherokee or ChevyFordColoradoRanger. While we’re at it, let’s all thank Jack for reading the aforementioned literature, so we don’t have to.

    Reply

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