This essay appears in a special symposium on intellectuals, which is entirely composed of essays by the editors of The Point. Click here to read all of the essays from the symposium.
Of all the personal stories shared in the wake of #MeToo, in no single narrative did so many recognize themselves as in a work of fiction: the short story “Cat Person,” by 36-year-old first-time author Kristen Roupenian.
Published in the December 11, 2017 issue of the New Yorker, the story follows Margot, a twenty-year-old female college student, in the rosy lead-up and nasty aftermath of a disappointing date with Robert, a 34-year-old man whom she meets at the movie concession stand where she works. They flirt for weeks over text, watch a film at the cinema, get drunk and finally go back to his house where they have sex that she does not enjoy. For a while, she vaguely deflects his subsequent attempts to contact her. Eventually, her roommate explicitly rebuffs Robert for her, sending him a hastily composed message from Margot’s phone that reads, “Hi im not interested in you stop textng me.” After Margot runs into Robert in a student bar a month later, he sends her a series of increasingly agitated text messages concluding with a single word: “Whore.”
The piece enjoyed overwhelming success. By far the most popular piece of New Yorker fiction this year, it is perhaps the most talked about short story since Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” published in the same magazine in 1997. “Cat Person” appears to owe its popularity especially to the enthusiasm of female readers. “The depiction of uncomfortable romance in ‘Cat Person’ seems to resonate with countless women,” reported the Atlantic. It captured, it was said, a widely shared experience, and therefore a deep universal truth about the lives of young women. In Margot, they said, they saw themselves.
Men’s rights recruits on Twitter predictably responded by hurling petulant insults at the story and its author, unwittingly reproducing various stages of Robert’s own descent into verbal violence. The Twitter account @MenCatPerson collected the responses of hundreds of aggrieved men for women’s entertainment, amassing in the process nearly as many followers as the author herself (around eight thousand). The fans of the story saw in these reactions further evidence of its point: by ignoring the sworn testimonies of countless women who insisted that “Cat Person” was the truth, the men only proved that they don’t understand how women experience the world, and don’t bother trying.
Indeed the story seemed to many to be so “real,” so “true,” that it was often mistaken for a personal essay or a journal entry. This was troubling to the writer Larissa Pham, who argued in the Village Voice that this confusion indicates that we are failing as readers: “The discourse around [the story] reflects how the distinction between fiction and nonfiction has collapsed in recent years.” We measure literature, television shows and films against a preconceived set of sociocritical norms, she lamented, demanding that art provide us with lessons on how to live and dismissing it as morally deficient if it fails to do so. Pham is right, but she might have gone further. For it is precisely this kind of failing reader that “Cat Person” itself encourages us to become. And it is above all to the pleasures of being such a reader that it owes its success.
What made so many women exclaim with such certainty that the story might have been their own? It was hardly the first story to depict a man (or a woman for that matter) failing to take rejection well, or as a clumsy, impatient lover. What is unique, it was said, is its portrayal of a young woman who would sooner sacrifice her own desire and pleasure than dare face a man’s response to outright rejection.
The task of interpreting the story was unsettled, however, by the author’s own intervention. In what can only be described as a companion piece to the story, on December 4th the New Yorker published an interview with Roupenian, shortly after the story went viral online and before it came out in print. Traditionally authors have responded gingerly to the demand that they explain the “meaning” of their work, or rejected it outright; Roupenian, by contrast, offered an answer that was clear and straightforward. She was happy to say exactly where the story came from and exactly what the story meant. For Roupenian “Cat Person” is first and foremost a story about reading. It is a story about a bad reader that is meant to teach its own readers how to read better.
The apparent challenge the story is meant to address, Roupenian told the New Yorker, is the perennial difficulty of reading people. A bad online dating experience was what got her “thinking about the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks, whether online or off”:
Especially in the early stages of dating, there’s so much interpretation and inference happening that each interaction serves as a kind of Rorschach test for us. We decide that it means something that a person likes cats instead of dogs, or has a certain kind of artsy tattoo, or can land a good joke in a text.
But assigning “meaning” to people’s choices in pets and body art, or their sense of humor, is misguided, she insisted: “Really, these are reassuring self-deceptions.” They mean nothing when it comes to what matters. “That Robert is smart and witty is true, but does the fact that someone’s smart and witty mean that he won’t murder you … or assault you, or say something nasty to you if you reject him?” No. Nothing that Robert does or indeed could do could mean that.
In fact, Roupenian sees her story as serving to unmask Robert, to wrestle him out of the trappings of his interests, aesthetic tastes, intelligence and wit—which she dismisses as meaningless at best and deceptive at worst. What’s left? On this Roupenian is very clear. In response to a question about where her sympathies vis-à-vis her characters lie, she replied without hesitation, “Well, at the end of the story, Robert calls Margot a ‘whore,’ so I hope that most people lose sympathy for him then.”
This unequivocal response came as a surprise to those of us who found Robert a sympathetic character throughout—sympathetic not simply because he experienced rejection, or was unjustly treated, but precisely because of the story’s ending. Roupenian depicts a man who is conflicted, a man who oscillates between anger, jealousy and guilt, and she captures especially well the ultimate failure to maintain the laborious graciousness with which he tries to meet Margot’s rebuke: the overwrought polite message, the abstention from contact for a full month. In their final text exchange, a drunk Robert follows up a question about whether Margot is “fucking” a guy he had seen with her, with “sorry.” His apology is met with silence. It is too late. He hurls another accusation at her. In this final scene Roupenian depicts well (to my mind it was probably the best moment in the story) how shame and regret at what cannot be undone can turn into further violence—when one, having lost all hope of undoing the damage done, doubles down.
But Roupenian herself sees Robert’s outburst differently: for her, it is in this moment that he finally betrays who he really is, with a single word. “For most of the story,” she says, “I wanted to leave a lot of space for people to sympathize with Robert,” but at the end the reader should see, as Margot presumably does, that their sympathy was misplaced. “Margot keeps trying to construct an image of Robert based on incomplete and unreliable information … The point at which she receives unequivocal evidence about the kind of person he is is the point at which the story ends.”
The “kind of person” Robert is—and by extension “the kind of person” anyone can be on this account of what it means to correctly read another person’s character—lies hidden behind a mass of unreliable pieces of evidence. But no matter how much sympathy this “mirage of guesswork and projection” elicits from us, the real person is nothing but the worst of his sins. And sinners don’t deserve our pity.
Suspicion and the desire to unmask the (always ugly) truth run through Roupenian’s nascent oeuvre, which consists to date of “Cat Person,” two other short stories (“Bad Boy” in the online magazine Body Parts and “The Night Runner” in the Colorado Review), a couple of interviews and a book review. (She has signed a reported seven-figure book deal for a forthcoming collection of her short stories.) In a February 2018 piece for the Times Literary Supplement titled “Intimacy, Infamy,” Roupenian confessed her distaste for a middle-brow anthology of vignettes about kissing. “Maybe I am just not the audience for this book,” she wrote,
I would have been, once—when I was thirteen and fourteen (and, honestly, fifteen and sixteen and seventeen) I would have devoured it; I would have underlined and starred and returned to … lines like, “Write the rain, I beg him. Write on me with your mouth,” and “There are countries in that kiss, years of experience, ghosts of past lovers and the tricks they taught you.”
It is not the questionable literary merit of these passages that bothers Roupenian. Indeed she seems perfectly happy to grant that the clichéd and melodramatic lines succeed in making kissing “seem the most beautiful, magical, profound.” Roupenian is bothered rather by the fact that what these passages make kissing seem—beautiful, magical, profound—kissing simply is not. Her own writing, she claims, will perform the necessary work of disenchantment:
The task that has seemed most urgent to me in the past few years (it is one I pursued in my short story “Cat Person,” published by the New Yorker in December 2017) has been to dissolve all that sticky varnish, peeling away the pretty words I used to coat and mask my desires to reveal the actual physical experiences underneath.
She concludes the review by responding to the final moment of the anthology, what she describes as “the kind of leading question that only a poet would be bold enough to pose”:
“Is there a connection between lyric suspension and an unforgettable kiss? That is, when the world sloughs away and time is upended, life swirling around a moment until all that seems to exist is the kiss and the singular moment of it—does this point us towards the eternal, the spiritual, the sublime?”
To which I answer, get away from me, with your creepy absurd propaganda for mashing our food holes together. Kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss.
Is this right? Are our mouths, with which we speak, sing and smile, “food holes” we mash together in kissing? Is to suggest otherwise “creepy” and “absurd”? A lot has been said about Roupenian’s successful depiction of bad sex. One wonders if she would admit the existence of any other kind.
While our character is reducible to the worst of our deeds, Roupenian claims, our body is reducible to its most basic biological functions. The rest is fake news and fairy tales. But is it really “reality” that lies behind the masks that Roupenian is determined to tear off?
Over the course of “Cat Person,” Robert, or how Robert appears to Margot, undergoes a radical transformation. At first, he appears “cute” (“cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class”). Despite him having a beard (one that is “a little too long”) and bad posture, Margot estimates him to be in his mid-to-late twenties. (Ordinarily, facial hair and bad posture cause people to appear older, not younger, but no matter.) By the end of the story Robert is but a “fat old man.” And while it is true that he is described as being “on the heavy side” from the start, during their sexual encounter he is suddenly so fat that, trying to put on a condom, his penis is “only half visible beneath the hairy shelf of his belly.”
The physical transformation is supposed to be matched by the radical change in his character. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Robert is, as Roupenian herself characterizes him in the interview, “smart and witty”: “They built up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, riffs that unfolded and shifted so quickly that she sometimes had a hard time keeping up. He was very clever, and she found that she had to work to impress him.” But whenever we, the story’s readers, are looking, Robert has nothing charming, witty or clever to say at all. Sarcastic, laconic and dull throughout the date that occupies the center of the story, Robert expresses himself so poorly, so crudely and so foolishly that Margot fantasizes about recounting the remarks he makes in bed during and after sex for sport and amusement. He is revealed to be so lame she can find solace only in the thought of the pleasure to be derived from mocking him.
Then he calls her a whore.
Margot had no way of knowing she was going to bed with a fat old man, because to begin with Robert wasn’t one. She went to bed with a cute, funny man who kissed her gently on the forehead, “as though she were something precious.” And besides, how could she have known: she is, after all, so very young. The transformation in Robert combines with Margot’s innocence and inexperience to render plausible that one might find oneself in this position unwittingly. Reflecting on her own bad date, Roupenian berated herself, “How had I decided that this was someone I could trust?” Robert’s physical, mental and emotional degeneration serves to substantiate the claim that we are fools to repeat such mistakes. For all we know, for all we could ever know, princes can turn into frogs, and what’s worse, they can do so after we kiss them.
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Read more essays like this in our
“What are intellectuals for?” symposium,
such as “Black Fire” by Jesse McCarthy
and “Switching Off” by Rachel Wiseman.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Roupenian acknowledges the experience is one that ought to elicit wonder:
The moment when I feel the most sympathy for Margot is when, after she spends the entire story wondering about Robert—what he’s thinking, feeling, doing—she is left marvelling the most at herself, and at her own decision to have sex with him, at this person who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.
While from Margot’s point of view the event is “bizarre” and “inexplicable,” Roupenian does offer an explanation for Margot’s predicament: the young woman, Roupenian suggested, is “incredibly empathetic” and excessively “imaginative.” A nice thought—but is this credible?
All kinds of women—young and beautiful, old and ugly—find themselves fucked ragdoll-like by crude, fat, old, lying trolls, the kind that hurl insults at them when they refuse to come back for more. If they’re not into that sort of thing, they certainly could come to feel “revulsion,” “self-disgust” and “humiliation,” as Margot does. But the idea that after the fact they would stand “marveling” at themselves and the inexplicable thing that had happened is peculiar. We need not take a stance in the fracas over the various ways in which we might be implicated in the repeated acts of dismissal, sexual degradation and violence that are meted upon us in order to acknowledge that it is absurd to claim that our involvement is exhausted by our being excessively empathic, imaginative and non-confrontational. It is either patronizing or self-deceiving to suggest otherwise.
Margot, far from representing the reality of women’s lived experience, is an exercise in wish fulfillment. The wish she fulfills is the wish that whatever happened, happened to us. We couldn’t have known better, so we didn’t let it happen, and we certainly didn’t do it to ourselves. Margot is but a distant cousin of a familiar female trope—the manic pixie dream girl: a beautiful young woman, quirky and energetic, who exists solely to help a male lead grow emotionally and experience happiness (originally coined in response to Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, it has been applied broadly to female characters ranging from Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Natalie Portman’s in Garden State). We’ve learned to dismiss the MPDG as the fantasy that she is. Let us not adopt Margot in her stead, a beautiful young woman who finds herself inexplicably sexually degraded and emotionally abused.
As for how “relatable” the story seemed to so many, it would not be the first time a fantasy has seduced its readers by flattering them. “I am Margot,” a thousand voices cried. But perhaps after all she is only what we wish we were or could be: beautiful, naïve, faultless. Complicit in the sacrifice of our own desire and pleasure, only insofar as we cared too much. Too good for our own good.
To read well, Roupenian avers, is to “unmask.” To peel away the “pretty words” and reveal the “actual physical experiences” that lie beneath. Keep your guard up or you might just end up getting finger-fucked by a fat old man who will call you a whore. This ethic of suspicion is a lesson that many have already internalized: the revelation of any failure, in a person or an artwork, has become sufficient to dismiss either out of hand. In the case of art, in some circles it has become the whole point of confronting it. Even Roupenian was not safe from the wrath of the sort of failing readers that Pham identifies, readers who rushed to accuse the author and her story of having an ageism, fat shaming or classism “problem.” The problem with Roupenian’s story is not however that it is too frank in its portrayal of the objects of desire of a very young woman. The problem is not even that it lies. The problem is that it encourages us to lie to ourselves.
It was remarkable to see a work of art (prose fiction no less) become the center of a passionate public conversation—who remembers the last time everyone one knew was talking about a short story? And it might seem harmless, perhaps even felicitous, that the participants, privately and publicly, were so frank in intimately relating the story to their own life. What could be the harm? Whether we sympathize with Margot or with Robert, isn’t it enough that we were moved to sympathize at all? Isn’t this what literature is, always was, all about? What else could Flaubert have meant when he exclaimed, “I am Madame Bovary”?
But the activity in which Flaubert engaged, the activity in which the public critic ought to help each of the work’s readers to engage, is not merely one of sympathy. To read with only the question of sympathy in mind, to read for the gratification found in aligning oneself with the passions—the joy and the pain—of this or that fictional character, is no more a way of seeing others than is looking in a soft-focus mirror.
Beginning in childhood with novels “solely concerned with love affairs, lovers and their beloveds, damsels in distress swooning in secluded summerhouses … wounded hearts, vows, sobs, tears, and kisses,” Emma Bovary abandons fiction, and becomes “enthralled by things historical”: “She idolized Mary Queen of Scots, and felt a passionate admiration for women who were famous or ill-starred.” In music class “the ballads that she sang were solely about little angels with golden wings, madonnas, lagoons, and gondoliers: soothing compositions which allowed her to glimpse, behind the inanity of the words and the incongruity of the music, the seductive illusion of emotional realities.”
But the course of sympathetic readings does not constitute a sentimental education; on the contrary, as Mary McCarthy observed in 1964, Emma’s “character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of human feeling.” It is not that Emma has no occasion to suffer herself, but as Chris Kraus noted some forty years after McCarthy, her “suffering never opens her eyes to the misfortunes of others.” Emma immerses herself in stories that gratify by deceiving, not because, as Roupenian would have it, the world is not as good as those stories make it out to be, but because the stories justify the kind of self-absorption that blinds Emma to anyone but herself.
During the composition of his novel, Flaubert wrote to his sometime lover and confidante, Louise Colet:
It is a delicious thing to write, whether well or badly—to no longer be yourself, but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance: I was man and woman, lover and beloved, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horses, the wind, the words my people spoke, even the red sun that made them half-shut their love-drowned eyes.
To condemn Emma Bovary and all who follow her lead as sympathetic readers is not to deny that in reading literature we encounter and are invited to identify with the mind of another. It is to suggest, rather, that it is not the mind of a character or even the narrator that we meet, but that of the artist who is, as Flaubert wrote, “everywhere felt, but nowhere seen.” When Flaubert exclaimed, “I am Madame Bovary,” he was neither justifying the character as better than we thought she was, nor condemning himself. He was Emma Bovary because he was all his creations, perfect and flawed alike. It is a strange and difficult challenge, to be more and less than one, at one and the same time. But that is the challenge that literature sets before us.
If our task as critics is to teach each other how to read better, then that task involves training ourselves to read not as Margot and Bovary read—to confirm our most flattering images of ourselves—but to read as Flaubert writes. This means inhabiting not just the subjective perspective of one or another character but of an “entire universe.” Only then can we see that Roupenian’s “reality”—where it is possible to draw stable lines between good and bad characters, or pure and problematic ones—is the most comforting fiction of all.
Photo credits: Jess Farran, “The Sex Series”; Jennifer Juniper J’anet; Aleksandr Neplokhov