9 APRIL 2019 | KAREN KAO
Fractured Fairy Tales was once a beloved segment on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. When I was a kid, no Sunday morning was good without it. The fat little fairy godmother, the big old book of fairy tales, the hugely satisfying splat.
There are no fairy godmothers in You Know You Want This, the debut short story collection by Kristen Roupenian. For sure, there are no happy endings. Readers expecting a reprisal of the viral hit “Cat Person” may be disappointed. All others will be delighted.
Bruno Bettelheim once famously posited that children need fairy tales. The cruel stepmother, the dragon, and the violent animal transformations reflect “the child’s natural and necessary “killing off” of successive phases of development and initiation.”
All of Roupenian’s stories have the flavor of a fairy tale but there is one that is more overtly so than the rest. It begins, as all fairy tales must, with a princess.
Once there was a princess who needed to get married. No one expected this would present a problem. The princess had lively eyes and a small, sweet face. She loved to smile and to joke; she was in possession of a sharp, engaged, curious mind, and if she spent rather more time with her nose in a book than was considered ideal at that time (or any other), well, at least that meant she always had a story to tell.Kristen Roupenian, “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone”
In “Look at Your Game, Girl”, 12 year old Jessica meets a drifter at a skater park. He gives her a cassette tape of Charlie Manson, the singer, in the days before he offed Sharon Tate. Take it, he says. You want it. You just don’t know it yet.
In “Sardines”, it’s Tilly’s 11th birthday party. The guests include her father, his new girlfriend, and all Tilly’s frenemies. Tilly makes a birthday wish that could only come true in a fairy tale.
Listen.Kristen Roupenian, “Sardines”
These are the sounds of wishes being granted –
(Mean wishes. Bad ones.)
Screaming. Lots and lots of screaming –
But muffled. Like someone is screaming into a pillow.
Or maybe into something a little more elastic.
Like a rubber balloon.
Like bubble gum.
Don’t take gifts from strangers. Be careful what you wish for.
Debts of Honor
Roupenian is happy to acknowledge the debt she owes to the books she read as a child. Pulp horror, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson. It was that immersive experience as a reader that she longed to find in the process of writing.
At a master class in Amsterdam last month, Roupenian talked about how to choose the right narrator. The close third person narrator feeds her desire to get deep inside a character’s head while, at the same time, giving the reader some space.
“Bad Boys” is one exception to that rule. The first person plural was once a common sort of narrator, back in the days of Greek choruses. It’s unusual these days, though Such Small Hands by Andres Barba is a striking example. Barba used the we to voice a group of orphans with no identity separate from each other.
Here, too, the unnamed couple in “Bad Boys” share all thoughts and desires. They mock their poor friend who, for the umpteenth time, has broken up with his terrible girlfriend. While he’s in the room
we cooed and fretted and bent our faces into sympathetic shapes in his direction. When he went to the bathroom to collect himself, we collapsed against each other, rolling our eyes and pretending to strangle ourselves and shoot ourselves in the head.Kristen Roupenian, “Bad Boy”
This couple’s power over their fragile friend soon turns into rancid. First as a sexual fantasy, voyeurism, S&M, and until finally outright violence. To Roupenian, the we narrator was the only choice for a story about disrespecting boundaries.
When Roupenian put together the stories that would make up You Know You Want This, she always knew that “Bad Boy” would be the opening story and “Cat Person” would be somewhere in the middle. As thrilling as it was for her to have “Cat Person” appear in The New Yorker, it had its limitations, too. It was unlikely that Margot would actually be raped and murdered by Robert or that Robert would mutate into a cat, no matter how bad their sex was.
By opening her collection with “Bad Boy” and following it up with a series of tales ever more estranged from reality, Roupenian wanted to make clear to her readers that all bets are off. But that is not to say that “Cat Person” is the anomaly in a fantastical horror collection. “The Good Guy” is the flip side of Margot’s story. Ted has learned to sublimate his desire for Anna by turning himself into her perfect best friend. “The Boy in the Pool” is another tale of repressed desire that dates back to the days of sleepovers and horror porn flicks.
In “The Matchbook Sign”, Laura suffers from a mysterious skin ailment. Bites appear in the softest part of her skin. The itching drives her mad. No doctor is able to diagnose her ailment. Instead, Laura is referred to a psychiatrist. It is an experience any sufferer of chronic Lyme disease (and readers of The New Yorker) will recognize.
Roupenian also knew that “Biter” would be the final story in the collection. It is apparently a crowd pleaser for readings at high-brow literary events like the John Adams Institute as well as for high school students.
Ellie was a biter. She bit other kids in preschool, bit her cousins, bit her mom. By the time she was four years old, she was going to a special doctor twice a week to “work on” biting. At the doctor’s, Ellie made two dolls bite each other, and then the dolls talked about how biting and being bitten made them feel. (“Ouch,” one said. “Sorry,” said the other. “I feel sad about that,” said the one. “I feel happy,” said the other. “But … sorry again.”Kristen Roupenian, “Biter”
Little Ellie is eventually shamed into abandoning her bad habit, but that doesn’t stop her from fantasizing. The sneaking up behind, the sight of the exposed limb, the chomp of the jaws, and the mouthfeel of gamy flesh. “Biter” is a horrifying, funny, perfect ending to a ride through Roupenian’s dark mind.