“The lonely. The awkward. The insulted. The smelly… the angry, the tortured, the hate-filled, the powerless”: These are a few of Kristen Roupenian’s favorite things. There isn’t much room for pretty people in her debut collection, You Know You Want This: ‘Cat Person’ and Other Stories, a catalog of brutal truths and bad behavior that peels back the thin veneer of human sociability like so much cracked linoleum off an old bathroom floor.
The characters in You Know You Want This coerce their friends into highly questionable sex games (“Bad Boy”); they manifest vicious birthday wishes (“Sardines”), quit the Peace Corps (“The Night Runner”), and do terrible things — by request — to Tinder dates (“Death Wish”). They make choices they immediately regret and ones they should never have considered in the first place. While occasional swerves into a kind of nightmarish magical realism can feel less than fully realized, it’s the stories told in the viscerally intuitive vein of “Cat Person” that linger; pithy, raw-nerved explorations of shame and desire and monumental self-loathing like the near-novella-length standout “The Good Guy.” You Know You Want This is a spiky, ruthless little book, as confrontational and ugly-honest as its title. Over and over, Roupenian invites her audience to slip into something less comfortable; more often than not, what’s on the other side feels a lot less like reading fiction than looking into a mirror. B+
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