The new Peace Corps Writers’ Best Book Review Award is named in honor of Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64), co-founder and publisher since 1989 of the Peace Corps Writers newsletter, website, and book imprint. Following her tour of service, Marian worked for 4 years in the Office of Reports and Special Studies at Peace Corps Headquarters. She founded the Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCV group in 1991, and later co-founded Rochester RPCVs.
Our first Peace Corps Writers’ Best Book Review Award goes to Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65) who has authored three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island, published by Curbstone Press, and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. She is a winner of the Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award, The New York Times New and Noteworthy in Paperback, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, among many awards. She is on the steering committee of Women Writing Women’s Lives, a professional biography association.
The winning review by Marnie was of Kristen Roupenian’s (Kenya 2003–05) collection of short stories You Know You Want This.
Let me begin by saying I’m not the best person to be reviewing Kristen Roupenian’s debut book, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Short Stories.
One would think I would be because I’m a Second Wave radical feminist who agitated for equal rights for women, especially equal erotic rights. As a writer I’ve felt the pinch over the years of the publishing industry’s spoken and unspoken bias toward “likable” women characters. And I have my own bias in favor of difficult, edgy writing, whether by men or women. This said, I’ve now come up against the adage of, “beware of what you ask for.”
When I first read Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” in The New Yorker I felt great discomfort with it. I’m assuming that by now those who are reading this know that the story went viral across the Internet like no other story before, but to recap, Margot a twenty-year-old working in a movie theater flirts, texts, and eventually goes on a date with Robert, a man of thirty-four. Though attracted to him—his wit, his verbal dexterity—on the texts, when they finally have sex, it’s a disaster for Margot. The progression of their sexual encounter is told in excruciating detail, and her step-step feelings are shown with honesty and psychological insight, also with humor. When I re-read the story for this review in the context of collection, I understood where my discomfort resided.
I had more sympathy for Robert than I did for Margot. I understood her predicament, having been there myself, having sex with a man she found increasingly distasteful, but in truth this guy was a sexual schlub, not an evil sexist. Reading it you knew he had never been able to successfully make it with a woman. When Margot doesn’t know how to shake him, her friend grabs Margot’s iPhone and cruelly texts Robert to get lost, doing Margot’s dirty work. Meanwhile Margot during sex had thought of all the funny ways she will one day describe their encounter to a friend, which apparently she does, because when Robert shows up at Margot’s favorite bar, her friends have clearly heard about him. After a series of plaintive, cloying texts, which she “ghosts,” Robert has the final word, signing off with “Whore,” proof to many readers, women mostly, of what a misogynist he is. I heard it as a bitter cry against humiliation.
It was the sub-textual cruelty and lack of empathy for his amateurish sexuality that made me cringe with uneasiness. And it’s what I found throughout the collection to also be the case, though applied across genders with both men, women, and children being the perpetrators of equal opportunity meanness. I understand that Roupenian loves the genre of horror writing and puts it to use in her stories. I know nothing of horror writing. She also writes in parables, not my favorite device. Perhaps by being conversant with the rules of these categories I would bring more sympathy to her work.
As I read these stories, one after another of transactional power plays and affectless sex, I thought, We worked so hard in 70s and 80s through transgressive literature and action to plumb the depths of the human political/sexual psyche to come to this? And I ask, Is Kristin Roupenian the canary in the coal mine? Is she here to warn us? Or is she just one of them? Since the term “swiping” is referred to in one of her stories, I Googled Timbre, an on-line dating site, and from there I was led to another site where a young woman described her “research” project wherein she “right swiped”—an indication of interest–every man to see what she would receive in return. She then went back and denigrated the “creepy guys” who came on to her. I found it chilling and not what I would consider a third-wave feminist attempt toward rectifying gender inequality, but rather a form of revenge. Is this what Roupenian is calling our attention to? Is she simply documenting the zeitgeist? Are these cautionary tales?
Where Roupenian falters, I fear, is in her lack of complex subtexts, those gray areas that we always talk about, subjective emotional depth, or the “rich connotativeness” I was once accused of lacking in my own tyro days as a writer. Just about every story in the book, falls off a cliff at the end, with a sudden twist that seems to come from nowhere and as such is unsatisfying. I kept wondering why this happened, and then realized that without developing the underlying structural threads, it’s as hard to reach resolution in writing as it is in personal relationships.
Another problem is with the sex. I had looked forward to a sexy book by a woman. But it’s not sexy. The one exception is the first half of the first story, “Bad Boy,” in which a couple (of undescribed gender) who have taken in a troubled male friend, begin to have noisy sex each night in the adjoining room and as they imagine him listening, grow increasingly turned on. I’ve always advocated for explicit sex in literature—both erotic art and pornography—as it tells so much about character. Alas, with pornography a little goes a long way, and after a while it can become boring. Erotic art takes lots of feeling to make it work and become enjoyable to the reader and the voyeur. What happens in this first story is that the sex flips from eroticism to a certain pornography and after a few scenes, titillation disappeared for me, never to be reactivated for the rest of the book.
V.S. Naipaul, thought of by many as a cruel male writer, was once asked why he didn’t like so many of his characters. His answer: “That’s not the case, I love them all.” If read carefully, you can find that love in his narratives, with the exception of his women characters, where his misogyny keeps him from greatness. But in his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, he achieves genius as a novelist. His secret ingredient in the writing of that book is underlying affection and loving humor.
Roupenian has many gifts as a writer: her ability to set a good narrative pace, her contemporary edgy dialogue, her fearlessness, her descriptive power, and her dark humor. A number of the stories are very funny, until they’re not! With these attributes, Roupenian could also grow into greatness, and I hope, once she calms down from all that surrounds her sudden, skyrocketing fame, she will be able to take the time, as in cooking slow food, to develop her talent. Much of the problem with the book is the obvious haste in compiling the stories: old practice pieces mixed with others that are too new and undigested. What we need is a deeper look at the characters’ sadness, at what triggers the emptiness of their lives, at clues to their needs that are unfulfilled. In other words, let us in on the reason their universe is so vacuous.
She might also want to lose her tendency to grab for shock, a trick a writer can mistake for daring and profundity. And finally as a feminist, I hope she’ll grow into writing juicy sex for all combinations and permutations of gender, as well as develop new techniques for enriching and stimulating the underlying intellectual and political threads in her fiction. Having read one of her early critical writing pieces https://thoughtcatalog.com/kristen-roupenian/2012/09/this-should-not-be-a-love-story-reading-dt-maxs-biography-of-david-foster-wallace/, I have a feeling she has a lot to teach us, a lot she can bring back from the new front lines.
Even with my caveats, I recommend buying the book. You won’t be able to brag that you discovered her before she became Kristin Roupenian, but you will be able to say, that you read her before she became one of America’s greats. And maybe you’re more the person to enjoy this book than I am. Taste is subjective, after all!