You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian

First of all, this cover design is just HORRIBLE. Look at it. It reminds me of Word Art, but it’s worse than Word Art for being so low-effort: the most boring font on the most boring kind of background colour, and what’s with the gradient (see Word Art). I’d been hyping up about this book coming out since this time last year, but when I went to finally buy this in a bookshop, I almost didn’t want to 13 quid for a hardcover that looks like this??? I mean, look at it

9781787331105

I don’t take irony well when I’m spending money on hardbacks.

Now for the actual entrails of this book:

All in all, these are stories with unnecessarily unhappy (if not gruesome) endings that seem to steal the show from their central ideas. These ideas are very well developed and articulated, which is why I think it’s a shame that the shock-factor of the plotlines distracts us from them. I can’t help but feel as if the author was playing a prank on us, as if she was saying, ‘You think I’m communicating big and deep ideas but actually I just want to gross you out, or maybe that’s only what I want you to think at first, to test whether you’re perceptive enough to see through glossy, theatrical façade of these storylines and pick out the hidden gems that are these ideas.’ In this sense the horrendously kitsch-looking cover design seems fitting.

Let’s suppose that this level of irony and reverse psychology was intentional and not just a mistake. Even then there is a problem: what’s the point of all this mind-game? What is the author trying to saying with this? As far as I can tell, nothing. This isn’t an existential-themed book, nor is it about mind-games where you question what’s real and what’s fake. In fact, everything else about the book the characters, the themes is laid out very clearly with no mystery or ambiguity at all.

That was my only problem with this book.

I particularly like how Lacanian these stories are. I’ll talk about some Lacanian instances as I go through the individual stories below:

[1] BAD BOY

“At first, what happened during these nights was a strange, unspoken thing, a bubble-clinging precariously to the edge of real life, but then, about a week after it started, we made the first rule for him to follow during the day, and suddenly the world cracked open and overflowed with possibly.”

This is one of those creepy first-person narratives where you find out that the narrator(s) is(/are) absolute psychos. It starts off with the narrators realising with slight embarrassment that they get a kick our of having sex whilst their friend may or may not be listening in the next room, which then develops into the friend joining them in S&M sex sessions where the narrators dominate, which then escalates into (spoiler: highlight to reveal)
murder and necrophilia.

Yeah. It was all very disturbing indeed, and the buildup was smooth and convincing, so bravo to Roupenian. There is little more to the story otherwise, although the fact that the narrators’ eventual reliance on the friend’s passive participation to achieve sexual (and existential) gratification is a nice literal embodiment of the Lacanian idea that “sex is minimally exhibitionist and relies on another’s gaze” (Slavoj Zizek, How to Read Lacan). What makes the situation especially disturbing is that the narrators’ have posited their friend as the big Other and have somehow managed to structure their whole existence around him the way we structure our consciousness around the Symbolic order.

It’s worth noting that this story is the only one in the collection where quotation marks around speech has been dropped completely. I think this mirrors the de-objectivisation of the Symbolic order as it gets taken up completely by the figure of the friend. It adds to the claustrophobic sense that the narrators exist solely in and for their friend, so entrapped in this world of sexual play that they’ve become completely insulated from the real objective world. It’s no surprise, then, that the intrusion of the ‘terrible girlfriend’ qua Real is what drives them to commit the inhuman atrocities which conclude the story: it is the intrusion that threatens their whole world. It is also this omission of quotation marks that enables the story to end in the singularly unsettling and dramatic way:

“Bad boy, we said softly as we left him.

Look at what you’ve done.”

This is in a way the collection’s title story, in that it contains the only reference to the title of the book, You Know You Want This, as part of the narrators’ sadistic command to their friend at the climax of the story near the end. It’s as if we were in this S&M relationship with the author, who gives us unnecessarily gruesome shockers but we read on passively anyway. I can imagine Roupenian replying ‘You know you want this’ to my complaint about her OTT shock-factor.

[2] LOOK AT YOUR GAME, GIRL

This is one of the better stories of this collection which isn’t unnecessarily gruesome. It paints a very subtle and acute picture of teenage sexuality in its tender ambivalence and naivety.

“She thought about him swaying to the song she’d played for him, cupping her headphones against his ears, and about how she’d felt in those seconds when he’d first touched her face, and about how his eyes were so blue. She thought about the cassette tape, still buried deep in her bag, and she wondered what would happen if he came to get it from her. She thought about what would happen if she did go out to the park, and gave him his cassette tape back, and told him what her favourite song was, and let him take her wherever he wanted to go.”

[3] SARDINES

A predictable but well-executed ‘filler’ with a very unnecessarily disgusting ending.

[4] THE NIGHT-RUNNER

A masterful portrayal of ‘darkness’ as in Heart of Darkness.

“Struggling to breathe but afraid to open the windows, Aaron stripped to his underwear, dabbing his soaked forehead with a tissue as he squatted on the mattress. On his lap, he held a tool that he’d taken from the shed in his compound, one of the long, flat blades that people around here called ‘grass cutters’. He’d told his supervisor the truth he did not feel unsafe in the village. But he felt scared and humiliated and helpless, and he was tired of feeling that way.”

[5] THE MIRROR, THE BUCKET, AND THE OLD THIGH BONE

A fairy-tale style horror story as an answer to Lacan’s famous “There is no sexual relation”. For an echo of this theme, see [7].

[6] CAT PERSON

I’m sure everyone is sick of talking about Cat Person. So I’ll say one thing: the story would’ve appeared much more insightful and subversive if Robert hadn’t turned out to be such a jerk in the end. Like I said before, it’s a shame that Roupenian felt the need to impose unnecessarily unpleasant endings on already very provocative stories.

[7] THE GOOD GUY

This story, like [1], is a literal staging of an Lacanian idea: “man’s desire is the Other’s desire” (Lacan, Écrits). The protagonist, like the Lacanian subject, has no idea what he finds desirable in women and allows his desire to be dictated by that of his peers.

“At first, he tries to address the problem of his vanishing erection, by shouting at himself, TED YOU ARE HAVING SEX WITH ANNA TRAVIS! But that doesn’t work. What lifts his dick, finally, is thinking about Rachel. About how, if she knew he was having sex with Anna Travis, she would be so jealous and pissed.”

This is a problem for him because it means he doesn’t know how to love anyone other than himself. When he desires women, he desires them as a token of self-validation only. When he is ‘nice’ towards someone else, it’s only in order to ‘be good’ out of narcissism rather than out of genuine care for them. Being ‘good’ becomes an object in itself, and that leads to his other very Lacanian problem

His failed attempts at being ‘the good guy’, which ironically end up accumulating into patterns of what can only be called classic dickhead behaviour, follow the standard structure of symbolic castration: he loses his status as ‘the good guy’ in his very attempt to gain it. Indeed, our protagonist is like the personification of impotence, both literally and symbolically. This has an important political message: the world is full of people who are too obsessed with appearing like a good person to themselves (or others) to actually act ethically.

Another important political message is this: women’s condescension to ‘beta-males’ like our protagonist turns around to bite them. The key to his cruelty to women lies in his vengeful belief that he’s the powerless and bullied one and the women are the ones who hold the power to hurt him, so that in his eyes, they deserve no sympathy. Those who abuse their power the most are those who see themselves as most powerless.

“What Ted saw in Anna’s eyes, he also sees in Sarena’s and Melissa’s and Danielle’s and Beth’s and Ayelet’s and Margaret’s and Flora’s and Jennifer’s and Jacquelyn’s and Maria’s and Tana’s and Liana’s and Angela’s: that tiredness, that wilful giving up. He sees how smug they feel about settling for a ‘good guy’, which means: a guy they secretly think they’re too good for.”

Also, this is another story with unnecessary violence. The protagonist’s vengefulness is pretty clear without so much focus on his fantasy of his dick as a knife. In fact, this fantasy only seems to reduce the story’s political implications by implying that the protagonist’s impotence could very well have stemmed from his weirdness as an individual alone, rather than as result of the socio-political problems the story addresses elsewhere. Again, it’s as though Roupenian is saying: you think I’m addressing deep and important issues but really I’m just trying to weird you out with this story about a weirdo who is too weird to be representative of anything.

[8] THE BOY IN THE POOL

This is a neat little story about unrequited love and the Lacanian idea that “in order to be operative, fantasy has to remain ‘implicit’, it has to maintain a distance towards the explicit symbolic texture sustained by it” (Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies). That’s why main character’s project to restage her friend’s teenage fantasy in real life was doomed to fail, and unsurprisingly, the result is awkward and comical. It did not help matters that the actor she hired was himself ‘traversing the fantasy’ by doing everything a bit too brazenly, too literally and thus without the required ‘distance towards fantasy’.

“Gyrating his hips, he unbuckles his belt, unsheathes it from its loops, and twirls it around his head. The guests ooh and ahh, but Kath cringes, furious. He’s doing exactly the thing she dreaded, that she sought him out to avoid: he’s turning himself into a joke and taking Taylor with him.”

[9] SCARRED

Another unnecessarily brutal fairy-tale style fable, centred around the idea that fantasy must remain veiled and at a distance to not turn into a joke or nightmare (see [8]). When the narrator manages to conjure up her “heart’s desire”, her reaction was laughter and indifference:

“I almost laughed. That was the part of my brain that started working again first, the part that thought, A naked man, what a literal definition of desire.”

We also get a return of the themes in [7]. The subject’s desires what the Other desires:

“If it wasn’t black magic, then it was slippery magic at least. Because if he’d said, ‘I’m a pediatric oncologist, but I write poetry on the side,’ all right, maybe, heart’s desire. But what good was a handsome amnesiac to me?”

The narrator’s pursuit of power also follows the structure of symbolic castration, establishing her as continuously impotent.

[10] THE MATCHBOX SIGN

Another unnecessarily gross ‘filler’ with feminist themes (see Her Body and Other Parties), featuring Lacanian lamella.

[11] DEATH WISH

An self-absorbed first-person narrative about an unpleasant sexual encounter with an extreme masochist, that screams PLEASE UNDERSTAND WHY I DID THIS I’M NOT A BAD GUY OR WEIRDO, as in [7].

[12] BITER

This is a wonderfully funny story, despite being also a bit gross. Read it!

“Ellie felt overwhelmed with despair, close to suicidal. What was the point of anything? Maybe she should bite Corey Allen and then throw herself off a cliff.”

Verdict: Would Recommend.

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