Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"Cat Person" and "Beauty and the Beast"

One of my readers recently wrote: “I’m looking forward to reading your review of ’Cat Person.’ Will you write it?”
Well, now that it has been over three months since the story appeared in The New Yorker and started a flurry of reader response and literary criticism on the Internet (usually called “going viral”), I reckon it is safe to make a few comments.
Josephine Livingston, the “culture staff writer” at the New Republic, wrote that many readers wove the story into the ongoing conversation about sexual harassment, as if it were a personal essay, noting that “as an approach to criticism” this turns the story into a tool for “digging in the hole of reality, rather than an imagined world that has its own rules.” I agree. And the rules that govern Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” I suggest, are the rules that govern the genre known as the short story, and that is what I feel somewhat qualified to talk about. 
In the “This Week in Fiction Interview” with Deborah Treisman, Roupenian said the story was based on an incident with a person she met online and it got her to “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,” adding that our initial impression of a person is “pretty much entirely a mirage of guesswork and projection.” 
Roupenian, who seems to me to be pretty smart about her story, says that much of dating involves an “interplay of empathy and narcissism: you weave an entire narrative out of a tiny amount of information, and then, having created a compelling story about someone, you fall in love with what you’ve created.” I am certainly no expert on dating, but having some knowledge of the short story, I recognize this as what underlies all love stories. You never fall in love with the person, for you never really know the person; what you fall in love with is the image you have created.
Constance Grady notes  on the website Vox what we well know—that the short story is a medium granted “precious little respect — and now people barely acquainted with it are holding up “Cat Person” as exceptional rather than typical. Hackles rose, says Grady, not necessarily at the story’s readers, but at the literary culture that makes it so easy to skate by on knowing the three short stories everybody reads in 10th-grade English, and to treat the great short stories that are written every year as afterthoughts.” Grady concludes, “regardless of whether or not “Cat Person” is a great short story or just an okay short story, whether it’s deeply subversive or highly problematic, it has been exciting to see the cultural discourse revolve around a short story for a spell. It’s a reminder of how immensely powerful and valuable fiction can be, and why it’s worthwhile to pay attention to it and learn from it.”
Yes, indeed, it was good to see so many people reading a short story and finding it engaging enough to want to talk about it—something I (but very few others) have been doing for years. I only hope it leads them to reading more short stories for the riches they provide.
“Cat Person” is, of course, about attitudes and behavior that lead two people to move from being strangers to having sex. The primary perspective is the young woman Margot, whose mind the reader is allowed to enter. The reader knows Robert only by his behavior and Margot’s observations of him.
Although many readers have been so impressed by Roupenian’s perceptiveness and  the accuracy of her description of dating attitudes and behavior in the story that they  thought it was an essay about real life rather than a fiction about invented life, I suggest that readers familiar with the conventions of  fiction, especially short fiction, will recognize that Roupenian has modelled her story as much, or more, from her internalized knowledge of those conventions than from personal experience.  Think of “Cat Person” as a variation of the classic Beauty and the Beast story or the Frog Prince fairy tale, in which the beast is, after all, still a beast, and the frog, even after the kiss, stubbornly remains a frog.
There is something “magical” about Margot’s willingness to become intimately involved with Robert.  She surprises herself by giving in to his abrupt demand, “give me your phone number”; When he says “stop fooling around and come now,” she puts a jacket on over her pajamas and goes out to meet him. After having sex with him, she marvels at the “mystery of this person who’d just done this bizarre, inexplicable thing.”  Afterwards, although she wants to “ghost” him, instead of sending her breakup text, she says she will get back to him soon, thinking, “Why did I do that?  And she truly didn’t know.”
Margot is the point of view of the story because she truly does not know why she allows herself to become involved with Robert, although she thinks it has something to do with his initially treating her like a young daughter, kissing her gently on the forehead as though she were something “precious.” The fairy tale mystery continues when she is turned away from the club for being under aged and begins to cry, creating a kind of “magic” as Robert wraps his “bearlike” arms around her. She sees him as a big lovable animal, sensitive and easily wounded. 
However, when the sexual encounter begins, she sees his soft, thick belly covered with hair and recoils from it.  When he makes demands, she complies and when he looks “stunned and stupid with pleasure, like a “milk-drunk baby,” she feels her power, thinking this is what she loves most about sex. However, she finally sees him as a fat old man with his finger in her, and her revulsion turns to self-disgust and humiliation.
I think what Roupenian has done here is to competently capture the archetypal encounter of how a young woman (Beauty) plays seductive roles with an older man (Beast)—allowing herself to have sex with him, even though she does not desire him. The spin on the mythic story here is, of course, that the Beast remains the animal that he is—that all physical bodies who are merely human are ultimately—and is not transformed, as in wish fulfillment fairy tales, by love.
“Cat Person” is smoothly, transparently, written. It is smart and perceptive. And, of course, it is timely, even as it is universal.  But it does not have the mystery and complexity that great stories have, even though it has the familiarity that has captured the attention of many people who recognize Margot’s feelings and behavior and even understand Robert’s anger at the end.


Jason Makansi said...

I realize you are analyzing “Cat Person” strictly on its merits as a short story in an absolute sense. Even from that perspective, I like to use a line I came up with in my writer’s group many years ago: “Cat Person” won’t stand the test of a New York minute, much less time.

But beyond that, its publication in The New Yorker damages the short story form more than the conversation around it helps focus attention on the form. Short stories for what is arguably the most prestigious platform for publication shouldn’t be selected based on the prevalent cultural and political topics of the moment. And it seems more and more of The New Yorker’s stories fit this bill.

It’s pretty clear that many short story selections in the New Yorker go to well known writers who have new work out, or forthcoming within a few months. As such, the magazine’s short story space becomes more of a promotional vehicle for that writer’s latest work than a showcase for the best of the best. What precious slots are leff should not be wasted on stories which don’t offer, as you say, mystery, complexity, unique voice, and other attributes which show the author to be bending the rules, pushing the envelope, dancing with narrative, and otherwise making readers think well beyond the last thing they read, etc.

I utterly fail to see what this story “brought to the table.”

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your comment, Jason. I, of course, agree with you completely. This is one of the reasons I dropped my subscription to the New Yorker.