The Author, the Work, and the No. 1 Fan — Kristen Roupoenian (Kenya)
Resonance is the literary magazine put out by the students of Falmouth Academy, the Massachusetts private school I attended for six years, starting in the seventh grade. During my time at F.A., I had at least one poem published in each issue of Resonance. In high school, I was also a member of the staff. But that wasn’t why I loved it. I loved it—and I swear I am not exaggerating here—because I thought the writing in its pages was more beautiful than anything I’d ever read. I was not a happy or popular adolescent, and the emotional stance I adopted toward most of my peers at F.A. might best be described as a defensive crouch. I was scared of my classmates, and I resented them; I could tell they didn’t like me, but I couldn’t figure out why. To the extent that I was able to lift myself out of my own sodden self-loathing to contemplate their inner worlds, I imagined their minds to be filled, like mine, with a whirlwind of criticism and judgment. But, once a year, at the end of the spring semester, I would open my copy of Resonance and be forced to face the unsettling possibility that my classmates were not the shallow bullies I imagined them to be but actual people, with souls.
In the French film “With a Friend Like Harry,” from 2000, the protagonist, Michel, is washing his hands in a rest-stop bathroom when another man starts beaming at him with the kind of befuddled, can’t-believe-my-luck grin that you wear when you realize you’re washing your hands at a rest stop next to your favorite celebrity of all time. Michel, who is not a celebrity, is confused; Harry, the “friend” of the title, explains that they were high-school classmates. Michel has no memory of Harry, but Harry remembers Michel very well. To be more specific: he vividly remembers the work that Michel published in their high-school literary magazine.
Harry’s knowledge of Michel is so profound and so particular that, at first, we think it must be a con. When he invites himself and his girlfriend, Prune, to Michel’s place for a drink, he seems to be setting Michel up for a Tom Ripley-style bait and switch, lying about intimacy in the past in order to secure intimacy in the future. But, in fact, as we quickly learn, Harry and Michel did go to high school together, and the reason that Harry remembers Michel so well is precisely as he claims: he thinks Michel is a really, really good writer. He demonstrates this by reciting one of Michel’s high-school poems from memory at the dinner table and then flashing Michel’s wife a look of barely concealed fury when she laughingly (and rightly) suggests that the poem isn’t very good.
As “With a Friend Like Harry” progresses, we keep waiting to find out the actual reason that Harry is so obsessed with Michel. Is it sexual desire? A longing for revenge? Is he angling to be absorbed into Michel’s chaotic but warm family life, or even to steal it from him, à la “Single White Female”? No, no, and no. Harry just really likes Michel’s writing—not only the poem (its title is “The Dagger in the Skin of Night,” which, as a connoisseur of the poetry that hot sad boys publish in high-school literary magazines, I can assure you is deliciously apt) but also the first chapter of a sci-fi novel, called “Flying Monkeys,” that Michel started but never finished. Harry is crushed to discover that Michel is no longer writing, and, in the course of the film, he devotes himself single-mindedly—and, before long, violently—to removing any obstacles that might stand between Michel and his art.
Harry’s dangerous dedication to Michel’s writing—the unhinged ardency of his literary passion—brings to mind another notable embodiment of deranged fandom, Annie Wilkes, of the movie “Misery,” from 1990, which is based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel. For those who are unfamiliar, “Misery” tells the story of a lonely, middle-aged woman who discovers that the man she has rescued from a car crash is Paul Sheldon, the author of the Misery romance-novel series, which she loves. But Annie’s happiness at meeting her favorite writer sours when she reads the latest book in the series and discovers that Paul has killed off his title character so that he can focus on more “serious” work. Taking advantage of his vulnerability (his legs are broken), she forces him, under threat of violence, to write a new book, in which Misery is brought back from the dead.
In a sense, Annie is an adherent of the Roland Barthes school of literary criticism: in her mind, the death of Misery is a tragedy, but the death of the author would be, at most, an inconvenience. For Annie, Paul Sheldon is simply a passage through which her favorite books are transmitted. She needs him to stay alive because it’s hard for corpses to write, but, beyond that, his continued existence is first an irrelevance, then a growing irritant, and finally an existential threat. That’s why, when Paul keeps trying to escape, she can take a sledgehammer to both his ankles without qualms. Annie “values” Paul the way pro-life activists “value” pregnant women: as a life-support system for what they consider sacred, a vessel through which something holy can enter the world.
Although Annie starts out by assuming a posture of hollow deference (hence her famous wheedling catchphrase, “I’m your No. 1 fan!”), her love for the Misery novels actually fuels a fast-growing antagonism toward Paul, who is unwilling to carry his child to term. He’s hardly grateful for the power he’s been given to create new life—indeed, he resents the trashy, feminine, embarrassing books he’s written. Which is why he’s so eager to focus on his “real” writing: a serious book about a man—that is, about himself. Has someone already written an essay about how “Misery” is essentially a gender-swapped exploration of the abortion debate? All at once, I can’t stop seeing it. At the climax of the film, Annie’s monstrous and self-annihilating rage when Paul destroys the novel that she forced him to write—her feeling that her fate is not just entwined with Misery’s but inseparable from it—evokes the agonized cry behind so much impassioned pro-life advocacy: “What if my mother had aborted me?”
Harry is also Michel’s No. 1 fan—his only fan, in fact. But Harry’s relationship with Michel is different, because “With a Friend Like Harry” has a different philosophy of art. Michel and Harry are never really in opposition, no matter how much Michel might claim that they are. Nor is Michel’s relationship to his work fundamentally antagonistic. Sure, Michel thinks he’s mad at Harry: he’s irritated, at first, when Harry won’t stop pressing him to stop futzing around with bullshit like “work” and his “family” and focus on what matters, which is writing. When gentle encouragement doesn’t work, Harry murders Michel’s parents and brother in the hope that this will help Michel concentrate. Michel, who has no idea that he even wants to be a writer, is grief-stricken rather than relieved. But, while he himself would never have taken the extreme measure of slaughtering his loved ones to keep them from coming over uninvited, once someone else does so, he is better off: for the first time since high school, Michel feels inspired and starts writing a new story, this one about eggs. If Annie Wilkes is every author’s worst nightmare, Harry is every author’s most shameful wet dream. Imagine if, one day, every impediment to your writing that you endured in order to be a good person—but secretly resented—suddenly vanished without your having to lift a finger!
“With a Friend Like Harry” has the shape of a horror movie, but it’s actually more of a bildungsroman, because its true subject is Michel’s coming of age as a writer, which stalled after high school but is kick-started by Harry’s reappearance in his life. Or maybe it’s even more accurate to describe the movie as a kind of a marriage plot: it’s through Harry’s love—his tender if murderous attentions—that Michel comes to know himself. Because there is no doubt: Harry loves Michel. For Harry, Michel’s art is the purest manifestation of Michel’s being, the part that Harry loves the most. But he loves all the less pure manifestations, too. Does Harry love Michel, the man, because he loves Michel’s writing? Yes, absolutely. Is there also a sense in which Harry loves Michel’s writing because it’s the purest manifestation of Michel, the man? Yes, I think so. That is why Harry remembers with such unnerving clarity all the random encounters they had in high school, even the ones that had nothing to do with writing, and why their relationship, though platonic, carries a distinct erotic charge.
Michel may find Harry’s dogged devotion unnerving, but his wife, Claire, quickly recognizes the magnitude of the threat. It’s not that she thinks Michel would leave her for Harry, or even that she fears that Harry will murder her if she proves too distracting (although he definitely would). It’s that Harry’s torrential, unstinting adoration overshadows the kind of ordinary love that exists between people in real life. Harry’s love is selfless, absolutely unidirectional, in a way that a partnership between two people who are trying to remodel their vacation house and also raise three children together simply cannot be. Harry exists only to serve, and only when his services are needed does he barrel like a demented superhero into Michel’s life. Meanwhile, Claire discovers Michel locking himself in the bathroom one time to try to write and gets pissed. One of these people loves Michel unconditionally, wants only what is best for him, and would sacrifice anything in order to help him reach his true potential. The other is his wife.
Maybe somewhere out there, in a desk drawer, there is an earlier draft of a script in which Michel and Harry’s pas de deux reaches its inevitable conclusion: Michel’s wife and three daughters join his brother and his parents in the pile of things that are getting in the way of Michel’s writing, and so must be . . . well, not sacrificed, exactly, because you have to value something before you can call its loss a sacrifice, and Michel doesn’t really seem to like his family all that much. Let’s say: got rid of with a minimum of mess.
The real ending is funnier and more surprising, if a bit messy. Harry ends up killing his own girlfriend, because he thinks Michel is annoyed by her. Afterward, he tries to enlist Michel’s help in murdering Claire and the children, so Michel stabs him. But it’s hardly a climactic confrontation. Harry barely resists. He just slumps over, his general demeanor suggesting that if killing Harry is what Michel needs in order to really focus on his writing, well, then Harry is O.K. with that.
Given the conventions of the genre, Harry’s demise is hardly unexpected. The real twist is—are you ready?—that Michel’s wife loves that fucking story about eggs. His new No. 1 fan is his wife!
For the first few years, the work I submitted to Resonance was produced as a result of class assignments; I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to write a poem or a short story for fun. By the time I was in the seventh grade, I didn’t do much of anything for fun. I did things that looked fun, that I’d been told would be fun, that other people seemed to find fun, that I remembered as having been fun in the past. I performed having fun, so that other people would look at me and think, There’s a girl who looks like she’s having fun, let’s go have fun with her. But the sensation of doing anything just because it felt good had been nearly lost in the all-consuming project of shaping a version of myself that other people might see from the outside and admire, and, through admiring, love.
The one exception to this was reading, which I did only for myself, because I liked it, and because when I read I stopped thinking for one goddam second about what was wrong with me, why nobody liked me—was it my face, was it my body, was it my clothes, was it my voice, was it my hair, was it my hygiene, was it that I’d said or done something terrible and offensive without knowing it, or was there simply something putrid and off-putting wafting from the core of me, like the stench of rotten eggs? When I read, I could stop hating everyone around me for forcing me to perform the endless, thankless task of attempting to change myself to please them when, deep down, I knew it wouldn’t work. When I read, I was finally alone in my head.
But publication in Resonance meant that you were eligible for several cash prizes, and, in the ninth grade, I started winning them. This was the first time it had occurred to me that writing was something I might be good at, and, as the prizes accumulated, writing quickly became My Thing. The truth was, I didn’t enjoy writing all that much. In fact, I found it immensely unpleasant, as it was the apotheosis of what I was already doing every minute of every day: turning myself inside out, digging around for the juiciest, tenderest parts of me, and offering them on a platter for other people to consume: Here are my guts, I hope you like them! And then waiting around to see if they’d be spat out in disgust or appreciatively swallowed down. Nice job! Really like the honesty here. The author shows a lot of self-awareness. Some good imagery, impressive control of sentence structure. A couple of clichés here and there; add more variety in tone and a bit more seasoning next time. My attempt to trade writing for admiration worked with my teachers but not with my classmates: word filtered back to me that they thought the praise I’d got for my writing had made me snobbish and braggy. Well, word filtered back to me that someone may have said something to that effect, one time, but I assumed it was the general take. Which felt deeply unfair to me, because I would have set fire to every page I’d ever written in exchange for one more friend.
I kept trying to trade writing for admiration all the way through my senior year of high school, and I arrived at college prepared to continue the grift. But then I applied to an introductory creative-writing workshop during the fall of my freshman year and got rejected, at which point I promptly gave up. This may have been the best thing ever to happen to me, because I shifted all that anxious praise-craving energy into different spheres (flirting with boys at bars, volunteering) and spent the next four years coasting through English Lit classes, which meant I also spent a lot of time reading books. Sure, I had to write essays about them, but I could do that in my sleep in exchange for an A-, which meant that, mostly, when I was reading, I was just reading, and got a break from the turmoil in my head. I read, and I remembered what it felt like to feel good. I remembered that pleasure was real, and that I had the capacity for it, apart from what anyone else was doing or what they thought of me.
It’s hard to imagine, in this era of Goodreads and #bookstagram and all the other ways in which the Internet demands and provides endless authorial self-exposure, that we could possibly believe the author is dead, but, of course, we do. Or, rather, it’s that Annie’s view of the author (hurt him!) and Harry’s version (help him!) are two sides of the same oscillating coin. Either the work exists wholly apart from the author, in which case his flawed self becomes increasingly loathsome: first he distracts from the work, and then he tarnishes it and thus makes it harder for you to enjoy it, and then he becomes an existential threat to its imagined perfection and so must be destroyed at all costs. Or, alternatively, the work and the author are, fundamentally, the same being: in which case, our love for the work fuels our crazed, all-consuming love for the author. Both are perfect and must continue to be perfect, because love this overwhelming can neither see nor tolerate any flaws. To be loved like that is heady, joyful, transformational; it’s what I chased throughout high school, the hope that someone—no, not just someone, everyone—would see my work, and, through it, see me the way I wanted to be seen and love me for it. Who wouldn’t want that? We are born wanting it, and many of us die wanting it, too. But that kind of love is also dangerous: imagine the sick, sinking feeling in Michel’s stomach the first time that Harry, reading, frowns and reaches for a red pen. To be born is to be flawed (this is true of stories and people), so a love that both assumes and demands perfection is best left to God and to parents—or, better yet, to no one at all.
More pragmatically, the problem with trying to use my writing to convince other people I was perfect was that I knew perfectly well I wasn’t. I was a grumpy, confused, miserable teen-ager, which meant that I often acted like a jerk. To the extent that my writing was constructed to win praise, it was as false as all my other selves. Whatever value it had came from the moments when I inadvertently let the truth slip through: Hello there, I’m in a lot of pain. I am deeply flawed, and not in a cute way, like a heroine in a romantic comedy, or even in a way that I am fully capable of explaining to you in my persona as the Author, but in ways that genuinely scare me—and, if you truly saw me for who I am, I would scare you, too.
I think if I’d kept writing after high school, the chinks through which that truth slipped out would have grown smaller and smaller. I wanted to be loved for being perfect, which meant that the last thing I wanted was to be seen. But, instead, I mostly stopped writing, and I just sat around and read. Whenever I went home on vacation, I paged through my issues of Resonance. As I got older, I realized, of course, that the work in Resonance wasn’t perfect, but I still think a lot of it’s great. (Maybe someday I’ll run into Jessie Gerson-Nieder in a rest-stop bathroom, and I’ll turn to her, grinning madly, and say, “Jessie! Oh, my God! It’s me, Kristen Roupenian! I’ve been waiting for the past twenty years for your poetry chapbook to come out!”) And, of course, my classmates weren’t all jerks; they were just teen-agers whose misery, like mine, sometimes made them act that way. (Except Jessie. Jessie, seriously, you were great.)
If I hadn’t been a reader, the fundamental division between all those categories of being—inside vs. outside, who I was vs. how I wanted to be seen—might have collapsed entirely. The fact that my writing would have suffered would have been the least of it; in a sense, I wouldn’t even have been a person anymore. Certainly, I would not have been a person with the capacity to meaningfully connect with others. All my relationships would have been consumed by my terror of the power that other people’s opinions had over me. Either I was the beloved Michel, worthy of worship, or I was the despised Paul, in which case Annie was right around the corner, ready to deal the killing blow.
Writing didn’t serve the purpose I wanted it to, which was to fix the fundamentally broken relationship between myself and other people. Reading—slowly, over decades—did. By preserving a private space inside me, one that was safe from other people’s observations and judgment, it preserved the part of me that knew I existed even without other people around. Eventually, like a caver navigating through a single, narrow tunnel, I was able to move from that one small opening into other, larger caverns: this is what makes me feel good, this is what makes me happy, this is what matters to me, these are my values, this is who I am. By building a self that I knew could exist apart from other people, that was safe from them, whether they approved of me or not—and by allowing them, too, to preserve parts of themselves that I was not allowed to judge—I became capable of creating something of value that could be shared between us: a space where art, and love, could live.
Kristen Roupenian (Kenya 2003-05) is most famous for “Cat Person,” a New Yorker short story that went viral. She attended Barnard College before joining the Peace Corps and taught public health and HIV education in Kenya. She completed her Ph.D. in English at Harvard in 2014, and her MFA at the University of Michigan in 2017.
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She is brilliant. Untangling the logic of acceptance and rejection in very interesting ways. Bravo.