My encounter with ‘Cat person’ occurred at a crucial moment in its social media circulation; just after the initial distribution began its wane into oversaturation, but before any coherent object of critique had appeared to take place of the text itself. Its mentions on my various timelines were equal parts celebratory and dismissive, each post asking and answering for the story’s expertise, most defensive against an assumed inevitable backlash.
I couldn’t really get through it on my first reading, unable to extend much patience for the flat prose and gestural characterisation. I skimmed through, noting only the clichés and problematic descriptions, resonating with its conclusion less as craft and more as quotation of the daily harassment shared by femmes on pages such as tindernightmares and thefleshlightchronicles. On Facebook, I had been reading comments from friends, colleagues and strangers celebrating the story as a narration of universal womanhood, praising its nuanced subjectivity and critique of toxic masculinity. On twitter, I joined a conversation with other Australian women writers of colour and culture, where we discussed our uneasiness with the narration, our lack of those sentiments of relatability, our distance from the wave of praise. Although some of us had had bad sex with white men, none of us had experienced it as a white woman. ‘It’s who these two characters are that allows a story like this to be written and received the way it has,’ wrote Maxine Beneba Clarke, who located her discomfort not in the relationship at the centre of the narrative, ‘but because of the uninterrogated middle-class whiteness.’
As a young Aboriginal woman working in literature, it’s not within my disposition or critical practice to give texts the benefit of the doubt. ‘Cat person’ is a story I would have left as not being intended for me in the first instance, like Girls or Taylor Swift, had not much of the online literary community pressed it as such an important and relatable narrative. On second reading, I took more time and care to detect the wry tone, the ironic voice of the narrator consistently stepping away after every line of dialogue signalled another trait of Robert’s ambiguously intentional emotional manipulation, the deft handling of Margot’s masturbatory narcissism when she eroticises Robert’s projected self-loathing to distract her own disgust, and Robert’s demands for her performance of victimhood to become the neutral state for their engagement.
Still, I found myself frustrated as the author told me explicitly how to dislike both her characters, and how to interpret the social conditions acting upon their interactions in both body and text. I cringed at the compounding descriptions of Robert’s weight as a stand-in for his unlikeability, a problematic already highlighted by writers such as Catherine Bouris and Roxane Gay, and riled against the gentrification implicit in references such as ‘the artsy movie theatre downtown’ and ‘the student ghetto’, which become stages for ethical challenges to the date-appropriateness of a Holocaust film and the ease of subverting drinking laws. As the author states in her interview with the New Yorker on the piece, the text is intended as a commentary on the signifiers we use to symbolically codify those we encounter both in body and online. By bringing forward tropes of the sexually but never socially empowered femme, ironising the captivity of the Electra complex as typified by Françoise Sagan and Sylvia Plath; updating the object of their simultaneous desire and disgust as a gestural but never demonstrated David Foster Wallace fuckboy; and signalling the terms of their interactions through contemporary feminist politics but without any further indication of class or racial concerns, the author presents an emotionally nuanced depiction of two people who, through media saturation, I know but don’t care about, relating to each other as illusory types ultimately predicated on the assumption of white neutrality. I am tired of endless stories endlessly negotiating the structural but more-so symbolic power struggles of middle class white men and women which can so easily become canonised where non-white stories do not.
To read fiction as opinion piece, or as an explicit and untranslated reflection of an author’s beliefs, is antithetical to the contemporary state of hermeneutics, and for a text such as ‘Cat person’, creates more problems than it’s worth. However, as the critical legacy of Edward Said demonstrates, ethical questions are not negated by literary status, and the cultural object of the text is not a neutral or vacuumed force. Reading across other instances of Kristen Roupenian’s fictive and non-fictive work reveals a pattern of uninterrogated economic and racial privilege, implicit in the staging of each of her narratives: a mysterious death covered up on a luxury cruise liner; a young woman whose decision to drop out of her MFA program to hitchhike across Canada leads her parents to threaten to stop paying rent for her apartment; beginning a novel on Zompires (zombie vampires) after ‘I was working as a nanny while I struggled to write sensitive, heartrending pieces about Africans living in poverty’. That Roupenian teaches courses on ‘How to Write About Africa’ and ‘The New Global Novel’ at Harvard is to me a concerning reminder that literary work is neither creatively nor structurally distinct from capital and imperialism. Another central interest of Roupenian’s writing is sex or sexual assault which often blurs lines of consent as a negotiation of power and control – a thematic I was introduced to in literature by the novels of Toni Morrison. What I believe ‘Cat person’ strives for but cannot achieve is the antinomy of bodied desire in social space and the imaginary described in The Bluest Eye:
In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. She forgot lust and simple caring for. She regarded love as possessive mating, and romance as the goal of the spirit. It would be for her a well-spring from which she would draw the most destructive emotions, deceiving the lover and seeking to imprison the beloved, curtailing freedom in every way.
Debate around the story reveals fault-lines in how gendered interactions are understood by a divided populace, but the discourse has already shifted back to those broader critical concerns regarding the demands we can and should make of a text, the ethics we can and should expect from fiction, the complexities of recirculating and perpetuating representations of others and the Other. These challenges are not new to minority writers, who are constantly held to racially and culturally representative expectations that erase the privilege of externality, anonymity, or experimental characterisation, so I have little pity when they are extended to writers who don’t expect to be asked those questions.
As a member of Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement, I have had countless conversations with other writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds about the responsibility we feel to our communities, and of the demands and restrictions that places on our work. When we critique narrow but socially dominant mimesis we are seen as bitter and demanding. We cannot afford to publish fiction that assumes relatability will allow readers to overlook cliches and cringe because we are not coded as relatable by white Australia; we are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language.
By my third reading, I felt that ‘Cat person’ is a story for people who, for structural reasons of the centrality of those types across medias, already have that language. I won’t lament another useful dissection of contemporary white middle-class gender politics, if that is the effect of the text, but I won’t be told to relate to it.
Image: Blaxland shops