Romance Is Dead, but Fiction Will Live Forever

That’s my reading, anyway, of the surprising success of Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story, “Cat Person,” which has dominated literary conversations for several weeks running. Because it’s always queasily thrilling when a short story becomes the talk of the town (queasy because it’s not my story, thrilling because it proves that, hey, people actually do read this stuff). I was eager to take a look at the piece that had launched a thousand tweets.

To my surprise, “Cat Person” is a genuinely great story, a neat dissection of modern manners and a master-class in the use of Joycean epiphany. But is it the story its fans imagine it to be?

Like the short tales Joyce wrote for his collection Dubliners, “Cat Person” is something of an anti-romance, a work that examines the fantasies of everyday people and homes in on a moment at which illusions are definitively dispelled. In this case we follow the stillborn relationship of a young, emotionally muddled college student–the story’s point-of-view character, Margot–with an older, awkward man named Robert. They meet at the movie theater where Margot works; their courtship, such as it is, stems from a fumbling remark on Margot’s part about Robert’s snack choices, which he interprets as an insult. It’s the negation of a meet-cute moment. There’s no zing, no charm, no zest, no hint of a delightfully comic misunderstanding. The contretemps brings Margot and Robert together only because it’s awkward enough to be memorable. It forces them to notice one another.

After this inauspicious start, Margot and Robert stumble through bargain-bin versions of several classic romantic tropes. In lieu of an intimate dinner out, we get a late-night snack run to 7-Eleven; instead of a pleasant evening at the theater, a morbid viewing of an ill-chosen film. Fumbled flirtations, blown jokes, botched attempts at teasing and banter, eventually culminate in a predictably awful sexual encounter–predictable not so much because the lovemaking is clumsy, though it is, but because these people never felt the kind of interest in one another that might redeem a disappointing date. Margot tries to call the whole thing off, but even the breakup goes bad, tipping from ordinary awkwardness into outright cruelty.

Going by what I’ve read online, the favored take on this upside-down romance is that it conveys a feminist message about the pangs inflicted on modern women by the emotional deficits of modern men. Robert is diffident, guarded, often mean, not especially attractive, and socially maladroit: the antithesis of a dashing suitor. Though we never learn much about his circumstances, he comes across as something of a standard man-child, sequestered in a den of books and music, nursing a deep-seated fear of women that he vents in the form of casual putdowns. He peppers his conversation with jibes and snide comments, harping on Margot’s youth and inexperience, making fun of her intellectual interests, whittling her down to the kind of love interest he can understand: shy, witless, sexy, devoted. He calls her “concession-stand girl,” even after learning her name; the graceless sobriquet drips with condescension. When Margot joins Robert in his bedroom, he heads immediately for his laptop computer, a gesture that alarms her. It turns out Robert is only putting on music, but the computer serves as a reminder to Margot, and to us: this man probably watches a lot of porn. Any suspicion on this point is strengthened by Robert’s behavior in bed. He slaps Margot’s ass, boasts about his hard-on, and growls in her ear that he always wanted “to fuck a woman with great tits”–imitating the kind of degrading pseudo-compliments that pornographers use to belittle women and salve male insecurity.

So, no, Robert isn’t much of a catch. The only thing he has to offer, really, is his age, which arouses in Margot the vain hope that, being older, he might also be self-possessed. It’s this difference in age, I think–Robert is fourteen years her senior–that determines what Margot chooses to notice about Robert: signs of independence, like his house and car, and physical symptoms of maturity, like his beard and poor physique. Some readers have complained about this aspect of the story, upbraiding the author for fatphobia. I think they’re reading too hastily. Margot’s feelings about Robert’s body shift with her reading of his personality, veering from mild attraction to violent revulsion. It’s only when Robert reveals himself to be grossly immature that Margot comes to view him with disgust.

All this brings up another question, one that–so far as I’ve seen–hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. What does Margot have to offer Robert? Suppose Robert were the man Margot wants him to be: suave, confident, handsome, self-sufficient? What would such a man want with this timid, sheltered, confused college girl?

This may be a side of the story that looms larger for older readers, especially older men. I was struck by Margot’s callowness, which I found to be as keenly observed as Robert’s meanspirited insecurity. What does Margot want? Who is she, other than a somewhat self-absorbed young woman who allows herself to be buffeted about by the actions and expectations of others? Or, rather, by her addled attempts to guess what those expectations might be, since Margot lacks the wherewithal to have any sort of forthright conversation. The author of the story has noted in interviews that modern dating hurls people into scary, context-free encounters where every exchange serves as a Rorschach test–you never know what that strange person across the table might be thinking, so you construct elaborate theories on the flimsiest evidence. As Roupenian says, Robert is a cipher to Margot, a mysterious and sometimes menacing man about whom she ultimately learns very little.

But Margot is a cipher even to herself. Late in the story we get a glimpse of Margot’s social circle: gossipy, self-important college kids who take it upon themselves to meddle in her affaire de coeur. Margot’s roommate even breaks up with Robert on Margot’s behalf, snatching Margot’s phone and dashing off a curtly dismissive text. Later, when Margot’s friends catch sight of Robert at a bar, they treat the encounter as an occasion for juvenile theatrics:

“When Margot announced that Robert was there, everyone erupted in astonishment, and then they surrounded her and hustled her out of the bar as if she were the President and they were the Secret Service. It was all so over-the-top that she wondered if she was acting like a mean girl, but, at the same time, she truly did feel sick and scared.”

Margot’s whole life, it seems, has been a pageant of episodes like this, minor melodramas in which Margot allows herself to be ushered around by people who make much of her submissiveness. At one point, Margot breaks down in tears when she gets carded at a bar. Too shy to reveal to her date that she’s underage, she waits for a passerby to intervene. Later Margot lies to Robert, telling him she’s scared of sex, then bridles when he tries to reassure her. We learn that Margot’s first sexual encounter was artfully stage-managed by her mother, who made reservations at a bed-and-breakfast and even sent Margot a card to celebrate the occasion.

In a revealing passage, Margot imagines herself describing her night with Robert to a notional future boyfriend:

“[S]he imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful yet hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say, “And then he said, “You make my dick so hard,” and the boy would shriek in agony and grab her leg, saying, “Oh, my God, stop, please, no, I can’t take it anymore,” and the two of them would collapse into each other’s arms and laugh and laugh—but of course there was no such future, because no such boy existed, and never would.”

Well, never say never. But what Margot appears to be imagining at this moment is not a relationship with a lover, but a chat with a catty best friend.

I’m surprised so many young women claim to see themselves in this tentative mignon, who relies very heavily on her youth and prettiness to stimulate protective feelings in others. The hunt for love can be a lonely quest. Margot retreats from it into a safe place populated with friends and parents and solicitous peers, who will squeal at her jokes, send her loss-of-virginity cards, and lead her around by the arm “like the President.” In an interview, Roupenian argues that Margot’s passivity is characteristic of women in general:

“[I]t speaks to the way that many women, especially young women, move through the world: not making people angry, taking responsibility for other people’s emotions, working extremely hard to keep everyone around them happy. It’s reflexive and self-protective, and it’s also exhausting, and if you do it long enough you stop consciously noticing all the individual moments when you’re making that choice.”

I often hear women lament this tendency they’ve diagnosed in themselves, a kind of watered-down variant of the feminine mystique. And I just as often wonder if they’re telling the whole story. The key term here is “self-protective.” Behaving this way–assuming you know what others want, acting on the assumption, then seething in silence at being taken for granted–serves, among other things, to protect and nurture a flattering self-image. It allows a person (not always a woman, of course) to see themselves as self-abnegating, heroic, and perennially underappreciated, a martyr to the unthinking whims of others. It can also be a form of control: I’m responsible for your feelings. It smacks, to me, of the sort of houseguest who presumptuously reorganizes your closets, buys you new pillows, throws out your old sweater, gets up every morning to cook an early breakfast without asking what others might want to eat, insists on doing all the chores even when there’s an agreed-upon chorelist, then sends a three-page letter two months later telling you how ungrateful and inconsiderate you are and that the very least you could have done was send an expensive thank-you gift. Like all varieties of narcissism, this style of obsessive self-sacrifice protects the ego by bending it into a closed loop. If you’re always guessing what other people want, you never run the risk of giving them a say. You hog for yourself the right to be an underdog.

This is what Robert ultimately does to Margot, casting himself, in his own mind at least, as the victim of her “whorish” wiles. But it’s also, I think, what Margot does to the people around her, guarding her thoughts like precious pearls while letting parents and friends and lovers take responsibility for her decisions. Margot could tell Robert the truth about her sexual past. She doesn’t. She could tell him the truth about her feelings. She doesn’t. She could tell her friends the truth about Robert. She doesn’t. She could ask Robert for the truth about himself, but she’s too busy evaluating him to learn much about him. She prefers to hold secret conversations in her mind, giggling at private jokes and aperçus while letting other people shepherd her through a series of crappy encounters.*

Robert has little to give Margot; in him, the usual hallmarks of maturity serve only as painful reminders that he’s never really grown up. But Margot chooses to give nothing of herself to Robert, nor does she seem to consider that he might be interested; by her own admission, she sees him as an animal. Without even the willingness to open up, Margot stumbles into a different narrative: the familiar story of an older, independent man pursuing a nubile ingénue. Margot’s one brief moment of attraction to Robert, early in their bumbling courtship, savors of the discomfiting undertones that have always soured this ancient plot:

“She thought he was going to go in for a kiss and prepared to duck and offer him her cheek, but instead of kissing her on the mouth he took her by the arm and kissed her gently on the forehead, as though she were something precious. ‘Study hard, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘I will see you soon.’

On the walk back to her dorm, she was filled with a sparkly lightness that she recognized as the sign of an incipient crush.”

Alarmed at the prospect of a lustful kiss, Margot sparkles when Robert, to her surprise, morphs into a doting father figure. Fleetingly, she becomes for him something precious, a princess. As their relationship develops from this premise, she relies on youth and prettiness to win for her the kind of gallant devotion around which romantic tales are spun.

But the ideals that drove the old romances–female virtue, male responsibility–have been rendered, in our day, not only moribund but fraudulent. Girls no longer aspire to be chaste, boys no longer feel obliged to be chivalrous. Solicitous parents no longer work to broker a perfect marriage, banking on a daughter’s purity and beauty while probing into a man’s wealth and character. Your helicopter mom might arrange your first hookup, but all you get for it is a lousy card.

Of course there are always those modern substitutes–sharing your thoughts, comparing your interests, seeing where it goes, putting yourself out there–all the “work,” as people tellingly put it, of dating and relationships. But what becomes of people ill-equipped for that work? Without the institutions that kept women in a state of enforced childishness, a stunted man like Robert doesn’t feel like much of a man at all. And without the old formal systems that used to shuffle through a girl’s prospective suitors, a pretty young nonentity like Margot has little to trade on and much to risk.

In the end, her flirtation with Robert succeeds, after a fashion. He falls head over heels for her “great tits.” He sends her oodles of mawkish drivel. He makes the demands of her that older gentlemen tend to make of winsome debutantes: loyalty, chastity, subservience.

But Robert is no gentleman, and Margot’s world is not a romantic one. It turns out that being cherished solely for your looks, youth, and meekness isn’t so sparkly after all.



*(I’ll bet most straight guys know what it’s like to date a girl of this type: skittish, doe-eyed, having little to say, tittering to herself but never sharing her thoughts; the kind of girl who responds to every question with a wobbly laugh and a nervous smile, waiting for a man to discover the magic phrase that will make her dreams come true. As men say to each other: run, bro.)

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