Thoughts: Cat Person, by Kristen Roupenian

Okay, so firstly, hello, it has been a while. I had a very productive NaNo, and I’m still powering on through to get to a (very close!) breathing space, at which point I’ll put it down and relax for the rest of the year.

Secondly, yes, I have a rather impressive backlog to get through and this story was only published five days ago so I am giving it a bit of a bump while it’s hot, and while my thoughts are fresh.

Thirdly, no, I don’t expect anyone to read this. Of those who do, even fewer will like it.

Let’s crack on.

I have to say honestly that I wasn’t really bowled over by Cat Person, for various reasons. Some of these reasons are just the way things go, some of them are on me and some of them are on the story itself.

Neutral Reasons

  • Because I was so meh about it, seeing everyone rave about it like it’s the next Austenian masterwork (sometimes comparing it directly to Austen’s work) has got on my nerves. It just has. The amount of breathless thinkpieces this mediocre, opportunistic story has generated – also, the amount of those thinkpieces that assume the only people who don’t like it are a) men, who b) hate all women’s writing and c) love it when men write about navelgazing domesticity – has taken my meh feelings and amplified them into a giant frustrated howl. It’s important to acknowledge this. In a month, when everyone has moved onto something else, I might come back to this and be amused at how angry I was at how other people liked a thing I thought was badly made. This unseen little blog post is my forgiving angel. It’s okay for me to not like things, even if my feelings are silly or overblown, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.

Me Reasons

  • I hate this distant MFA writing style. I feel like it thinks it’s better than me. It uses its dispassionate blandness to try to come across as extra meta-profound, and it’s so cheap and so lazy, and I hate it so much. It gives the writer an escape from having to have feelings. It’s cowardly.
  • If this is supposed to be a timeless everywoman story (reasons on why I think this could be the case below) then too bad – I also am so over this positioning of young urban straight white American teenz in university on the dating scene as the universal experience. This is not the author’s fault, it is not the fault of young urban straight white American teens, it’s not the fault of single people, it’s not the fault of smartphones or the US or the people who teach creative writing courses, and it’s not my fault either. I just don’t think it’s that interesting.
  • I’m not in the mood right now to talk endlessly about how sometimes men call us whores when we reject them. I’m just not, and that means I wasn’t ever going to love this story and I own that. I strongly dislike the internet’s odd ability to make us navelgaze forever only about the specific things that we can talk about, that just happen to be the things that leave out the people who are already disadvantaged in the public arena, who already find it difficult to be heard. I know that we have a large capacity to care about things and we can care about more than one thing, but some things are finite, including prime eyeball space on the internet. I would love it if we could have some perspective and write fewer empty thinkpieces and more informative, really awareness-raising pieces. That is, however, not the fault of the story.
  • I knew it all already. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of lefty stuff anyway, or because I have friends with whom I can discuss stuff like this, but this story told me nothing I didn’t already know, and added zero new twists to things I already knew. I’m putting this here because maybe this means I just wasn’t the right audience, which isn’t the story’s fault. So let’s move on to things that are the story’s fault.

Story Reasons

  • I found the plot to be a really dry, box-ticking enterprise in Talking About Stuff That Is Topical. It read like those political biographies they rush out after elections. I find this particular strain of female dating experience to be so talked about right now that it was easy to spot every little nudge. Protagonist wonders if new boyfriend will rape and murder her, check. Feeling bad for wondering if he will rape and murder her, check. Guy takes her to a depressing worthy film instead of the fun things she likes, check. Guy gets annoyed with her for something she can’t control, check. Guy acts nice again when she shows vulnerability, check. And on, and on, AND ON, forever.
  • Which brings us to the next point: with so many super hot topical points to squeeze in, neither of the characters has any room for a personality. They’re too busy moving from one red flag to another. Really, all I can really glean is that he’s a bit socially awkward and she’s got a bit of an ego and is a bit of a coward. Bits of this and bits of that, never quite adding up to a whole number.
  • Which brings us to the next next point: is this deliberate? Are we given nothing about either character but names and a list of scores to add up for a reason? Is this supposed to be the everywoman scenario I expressed my opinion about above? Because I’ve expressed my opinion about that. It’s not timeless enough – smartphones are a thing, though dating apps are never mentioned. It’s not placeless enough – what other country in the world would have drama over fake IDs between two people in their twenties? Only in crime thrillers, because our drinking laws aren’t ridiculous. I mean, the guy has bookshelves, art, board games in his flat. Described exactly in those terms: “It was new, and a little frightening, to be so completely on someone else’s turf, and the fact that Robert’s house gave evidence of his having interests that she shared, if only in their broadest categories—art, games, books, music—struck her as a reassuring endorsement of her choice.” I mean, this tells us nothing about either of them. Is there a human being alive who doesn’t have some taste in these things? What are their tastes? Are they actually different? In what way? Please, tell me something about these people.
  • The title – why is it called that? Is it supposed to mean something? The story is so straightforward and devoid of twists (no, I’m sorry, it really is!) that the fact that the title is either cryptic or meaningless annoys me more than it should.
  • The last one is a big one. The very last line, the one Roupenian snaps out like a punchline, like a revelation, feels completely unearned. It’s the logical extension of the story, sure. It’s not the logical extension of the character. Robert at this point is totally justified in being angry with Margot because she’s treated him shabbily. But despite all the other stuff about him, all the weird little red flags, he doesn’t feel like he could be deceptive about himself? He hasn’t all through the story. He’s only been his awkward, weird self all along, and then for him at the end to call her a whore is just so patently ridiculous that it has no power to shock.

 

So those are the main reasons I didn’t get on with it. Note that I didn’t mention the characters themselves (Robert’s “repulsiveness”, Margot’s cowardice in not setting the record straight when her roommate, Tamara, the worst roommate and friend of all time, writes an incredibly rude text to Robert). I’m not going to fall into that trap of letting my vague dislike and frustration with the characters justify how they treat each other. But it feels fake as well, because as I say above, his viciousness comes from nowhere. In some ways, he’s almost cartoonishly bad as a boyfriend, so much so that I genuinely wondered if this was going to be about the way patriarchy specifically hurts socially awkward, not model-hot men and the way they interact with women. The story was at its most interesting and fresh when it managed to break away from the laundry list of relationship red flags it seemed intent on re-enacting.

If you want to engage in this topic, read the real stories of real women. God, even Bye Felipe has more depth to it. But this short story feels rushed and half-hearted, and (just like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, which is similarly well-intentioned and similarly badly-executed) does its cause no favours.

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