Everyday Sadism

Kristen Roupenian, Ann Arbor, Michigan, January 2019
Chuk Nowak/eyevine/Redux
Kristen Roupenian, Ann Arbor, Michigan, January 2019

It has happened only twice in nearly seventy years: a short story appears in The New Yorker and goes viral, setting off an avalanche of responses. Some readers, fooled by its up-to-date style, misinterpret it as a piece of reportage. Others attack the author as a sadist or a misanthrope. And many more are simply confused about what it means. Is it an allegory for the suffering that women face under patriarchy? A screed that indicts contemporary society more generally? Or just a tale taken from everyday life in which something goes horribly wrong?

The first of those viral stories, from 1948, was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a parable about a woman in an ordinary village who gets matter-of-factly stoned by her neighbors in an annual ritual that no one understands but in which everyone participates. It quickly became a classic work of twentieth-century short fiction, usually thought of—in settings ranging from cold war America to apartheid South Africa—as a commentary on the barbarism and brutality inherent even in so-called civilized society. The second, published in December 2017 by the then unknown writer Kristen Roupenian, was “Cat Person,” a chronicle of a misbegotten romance between Margot, a college student, and Robert, an older patron of the movie theater where she works. The pair meet at the concession stand, flirt extensively via text message, and go on a single date, during which they have a sexual encounter so miserable that Margot decides never to see Robert again. It’s a perfectly tuned satire of modern-day hookup culture, deftly written, often hilarious, and genuinely shocking.

On the surface, these stories don’t seem to have much in common, aside from the demographic of their writers—both American women in their thirties, at the start of their careers—and the reactions, often vicious, that they generated. (Some of the most unfortunate responses to Roupenian’s story were screenshotted and immortalized on Twitter by someone using the handle @MenCatPerson, or “Men React to Cat Person.”) Looked at more broadly, however, their themes and preoccupations both fit neatly, if unconventionally, within a genre that might be called “domestic horror.” In neither story does anything supernatural take place, nor is there graphic violence. “The Lottery” unfolds with an exquisitely calibrated, slow-burning foreboding that begins with the deceptively innocent first line (“The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day…”) and builds through the devastating conclusion. Its horror takes place at home, in a quaint village, in the full light of day. Pressed repeatedly to explain what the story meant, Jackson eventually said that by setting the brutal ritual in present-day America, she hoped to shock readers “with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”

Though “Cat Person”…

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