• csalisbury
    1.4k
    Have you guys heard about this story? It's A New Yorker story that's been making the rounds on social media (for those who share new yorker stories on social media) since last December. I missed it, and usually don't really care for new yorker fiction, but read it recently - and, yep, its a doozy. I have extremely mixed feelings about it, but its nice to actually read something that does elicit extremely mixed feelings. I think it'd be a good text upon which to build a bigger (almost certainly controversial) conversation - but, like, it is a probably 30 minute read. If anyone's willing to set aside that amount time, I'd be interested in both hot takes and cold reflections.

    here it is: Cat Person
  • Bitter Crank
    6.1k
    Why "Cat Person"? Odd title. It was a moderately engaging short story. Nothing that happened seemed particularly remarkable. Of course, sometimes the imagined guy is better than the actual guy. What's great is when the actual guy doesn't require any amplification. I've never actually 'dated' women, so...

    I've had quite a few encounters of the sort presented in the story: barely lukewarm, slightly more exciting for one than the other, clumsy, lurching moves. I've had worse encounters too. Not dangerous encounters, but ones that were weirder than the New Yorker one. God, there are some very odd people out there.

    I'd put the story in the "slice of life" category. Nothing to learn from the experience except that experiences like that happen and they aren't especially instructive.
  • csalisbury
    1.4k
    There's a lot of very subtle but very very observant details that I think pertain specifically to 'millennial' dating (as well as millennial ideas floating around about men and women, and dating, and then those ideas are part of the date as well, though background.) The end in particular is a (imo way too obvious) play on the 'nice guy' trope, which is a huge part of gender politics rn. (I mean it goes back, at least, to Freud and the madonna/whore, but the way its presented here smacks of a particular internet-savvy sensibility.)

    I have a theory about the title. So, a big part of their courting thing is text-jokes. And one of them is that jokey imagined scenario about his cats. But

    She remembered that he’d talked a lot about his cats and yet she hadn’t seen any cats in the house, and she wondered if he’d made them up. — story

    If i have it right, 'cat person' is basically 'bullshit, but socially recognizable, identification' which is what's covering up what he actually is which is [ bad thing]. Honestly, I thought they were both kind of bad, in different ways. I feel like him calling her a whore, at the end, is a cheap narrative trick to drain all the ambiguity and frustration and moral failings that they both feel- so that you can sigh and go 'ok, phew, in the end all it meant was that he was bad.' So like: what if the story just ends when she leaves the bar? What if he didn't call her a whore? It changes the entire thing.
  • La Cuentista
    11
    I read it. Oddly enough, I can see that exact scenario playing out in real life.
  • csalisbury
    1.4k
    It's really real right? I've been on both sides of this kind of scenario, and its eerie. But having been on both sides, the story feels a little false to me. Still trying to articulate exactly why.
  • csalisbury
    1.4k
    Curious as to how you experienced the ending when you read it? I believe its intended to allow an absolute moral condemnation. i’m wondering if that intent is legible across generational lines
  • La Cuentista
    11
    What do you mean by “allow an absolute moral condemnation”?
  • csalisbury
    1.4k
    One of the common memes or tropes or zeitgeisty thing you see floating around a lot (one which I think has a lot of truth to it) is that the quintessential 'nice guy', who caters to what he believes a woman wants and appears soft and emotional and understanding - that this sort of guy is often sitting atop a volcano of misogynistic rage. The idea is that the 'nice guy' isn't really 'nice', but has this idea that if you do the right things, then you deserve sex and affection. When their routine fails, and they don't get what they think they've earned, the true self emerges. (See also: the moral valence of the term 'Friendzoning')

    The way this plays out on social media is that examples of this kind of behavior in texts, on tinder, etc are posted and so a character emerges: The Evil "nice" guy. The story makes implicit use of this cultural awareness in order to communicate to its knowing readership what sort of thing Robert actually is. I I think its true what Robert does in the end is good evidence he's a pretty shitty dude, and the reader should lose any lingering sympathy they might have. But I also feel like the author is 'sealing' off the story in a certain way, by making Robert fit into this stereotypical figure. There's so much going on in the story, it seems like the end basically gives license to not think too much about what's going on.

    Does that make sense?
  • apokrisis
    4.1k
    I feel like him calling her a whore, at the end, is a cheap narrative trick to drain all the ambiguity and frustration and moral failings that they both feel...csalisbury

    My reaction too when I read it some time back. Though the "reveal" can be seen as another layer of pose - him re-framing in a way that socially legitimates the events in a fashion that is now neatly the opposite of sweet and loving. But was it any more authentic if selfhood is essentially always inauthentic to the degree it is self-conscious?

    I would slip in that I'm enjoying Joseph Heller's Something Happens if you are into honest literary accounts of the terrible things people think but can't actually say.

    But the same basic question applies. Is it possible to be authentic when being aware of how we think or feel must carry with it the sharp sense of the "other" which by implication or suggestion is getting suppressed by us?

    That is the real deep question. Are we actually hiding part of ourselves? Or does it just feel like that because acting a part always carries with it whatever it is we are then not doing as its automatic contrast?

    It is like that standing on the edge of cliffs or high balconies. The fear you may do exactly what you don't want to do - leap - is what can feel overwhelming.

    So the question I have is whether we can ever get through to the "truth" of another person, or ourselves. Because however we actually overtly act, there is then whatever is the antithesis of that by default. The issue is then whether that should be read as the hidden authentic desire - something we've repressed from sight because it is the bad "us" - or merely just another way we could have acted and didn't ... because we are essentially all right as a person ... as a habit of our social conditioning.

    Cat Person might strike a chord with its Millennial heightened form - the newer games made possible by online identity. But again, read Heller if you haven't. Very little seems to have changed on that score.

    Well, the social dynamics are the same. And I would say the interesting bit is how we understand personal identity.

    Anthropology would say that living behind a social mask is far more natural and authentic than the modern Western romantic model of identity would suggest. And also that the erosion of those traditional social categories - like the masculine and feminine - can be troubling if you then expect to find "yourself" in some place beyond all social categories. No such true self can exist.

    So the final position I would be arguing for is that we have no sensible choice except to play those available games of social identity as well as we can - for they define where our society is at - while also having a healthy sense of fun about it being a mere (but meaningful) game.

    We've got to be able to laugh at our own poses while not being ashamed of the fact that we are also posing.

    That works out easily enough in ordinary life, but not so much in the social media world perhaps. Online tends to drive things towards black and white simplicity. Either things are too nice or too nasty. And I think your point was that the male would have been neither as sweet nor as misogynistic as the words suggested. So it was unfair to have the reveal suggest he was ever going to turn out authentically one or the other.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.1k
    I went back and read the ending again.

    The story effectively ended at the end of the first paragraph below. The second paragraph begins the redefinition of the older (32) male character in the story who had previously been only an unsuccessful date. By the end of the piece, not many words later, he has been recast as something menacing. (Of course, at one point she thought maybe he was planning on murdering her.)

    Margot collapsed on the table, laying her head in her hands. She felt as though a leech, grown heavy and swollen with her blood, had at last popped off her skin, leaving a tender, bruised spot behind. But why should she feel that way? Perhaps she was being unfair to Robert, who really had done nothing wrong, except like her, and be bad in bed, and maybe lie about having cats, although probably they had just been in another room.

    But then, a month later, she saw him in the bar—her bar, the one in the student ghetto, where, on their date, she’d suggested they go. He was alone, at a table in the back, and he wasn’t reading or looking at his phone; he was just sitting there silently, hunched over a beer.

    And then there is the texting which ends with her being called "whore". I didn't like the way it ended, and it didn't seem consistent with the man's previous presentation. The author couldn't leave it well enough alone. She made the merely unsuccessful guy into a bad guy.

    As for millennial values about dating, male/female relations, and so on -- I really don't know how they think. It's a loop I'm out of. When I read about goings on around campuses, their values sometimes strike me as just plain bizarre.
  • La Cuentista
    11
    Yes it does make sense. All of what you described would have been lost had the ending not been like that. It would have been a lot different if it simply ended when she left the bar as you suggested.

    Which is why it’s interesting that the emotionally uninvolved roommate so easily types out the blunt truth and hits send on the text message.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.1k
    One of the common memes or tropes or zeitgeisty thing you see floating around a lot (one which I think has a lot of truth to it) is that the quintessential 'nice guy', who caters to what he believes a woman wants and appeals soft and emotional and understanding - is sitting atop a volcano of misogynistic rage. The idea is that the 'nice guy' isn't really 'nice', but has this idea that if you do the right things, then you deserve sex and affection. When their routine fails, and they don't get what they think they've earned, the true self emerges.csalisbury

    Old gay men like me don't have much (any) experience dating millennial women, but It seems to me that the zeitgeistich thing of men having expectations that "a nice time" ought to be rewarded with at least some sex play, if not actual fucking, has been around for quite some time. Personally, I liked the old fashioned gay approach where one could count on sex, and the nice time was gravy.

    Straight folks don't operate that way, at least not since the 1960s. Young straight folks seem to have a lot of baggage to work through. I've heard that even young gay men play dating games, these days--when they don't get it on (or off?) with the help of Grindr.
  • Bitter Crank
    6.1k
    This has been an interesting discussion. Thanks. I have to go to bed now so I can get up early to make it to a root canal appointment at 8:00. Only barbarians schedule root canals that early in the day.
  • csalisbury
    1.4k
    Sounds like Robert's probably the one doing the schedules over there. Good luck & thanks for reading it.
  • aporiap
    81
    ↪La Cuentista One of the common memes or tropes or zeitgeisty thing you see floating around a lot (one which I think has a lot of truth to it) is that the quintessential 'nice guy', who caters to what he believes a woman wants and appears soft and emotional and understanding - that this sort of guy is often sitting atop a volcano of misogynistic rage. The idea is that the 'nice guy' isn't really 'nice', but has this idea that if you do the right things, then you deserve sex and affection. When their routine fails, and they don't get what they think they've earned, the true self emerges. (See also: the moral valence of the term 'Friendzoning')
    The way this plays out on social media is that examples of this kind of behavior in texts, on tinder, etc are posted and so a character emerges: The Evil "nice" guy. The story makes implicit use of this cultural awareness in order to communicate to its knowing readership what sort of thing Robert actually is. I think its true what Robert does in the end is good evidence he's a pretty shitty dude, and the reader should lose any lingering sympathy they might have. But I also feel like the author is 'sealing' off the story in a certain way, by making Robert fit into this stereotypical figure. There's so much going on in the story, it seems like the end basically gives license to not think too much about what's going on.

    They both made a mistake in not expressing their emotions at the appropriate time. Her friend rushed the closure process and left him in a predicament which he predictably responded to-- yielding to her feelings, politely giving her space. Of course that left him with unprocessed emotions, uncertainty/confusion and unmet longing directed at her. His world was shuddered by that encounter, clearly and then she practically ghosts him, suddenly the dynamic completely changes and he's left trying to pick up the pieces. So it's completely understandable he responded like that, in fact I feel like it was tame if anything. So I don't think he was a closet misygynist, I think he just wanted straight forward discussion to figure out what parts he did wrong, what parts he did right.

    I wanted to highlight another element -- images/mental depictions of the other 'that cat person' 'concession stand girl' 'lumber jack aura' 'the witty person she knew through his texts' .. They're all shit.. I'd love a world in which people were aware that these are all just fancy snipets with no real existence outside of very narrow circumstantial confines and expectations were formed in full awareness and acceptance of how variable personas and momentary behaviors can be (in social context of course, professional setting expectations are set apart and defined narrowly).
  • csalisbury
    1.4k
    The story effectively ended at the end of the first paragraph below. The second paragraph begins the redefinition of the older (32) male character in the story who had previously been only an unsuccessful date. By the end of the piece, not many words later, he has been recast as something menacing.

    Yes, I think you're right. My first thought was that it ended when she left the bar, but the bar scene itself is superfluous, and is just a set up for the texts. plus: '...and maybe lie about having cats, although probably they had just been in another room" is a killer ending, just aesthetically.
  • Πετροκότσυφας
    783
    I too felt the ending wasn't consistent with what came before. There's a reading which makes it seem consistent, but if that's what the author intended, then it makes the story a really crappy one. So, the way I think it becomes consistent is this: what the author had in mind to do with Robert from the start was to present him as the clumsy, socially inadequate person, the cat person (although the stereotype cat person is usually a female), who's in great need of acceptance and for that reason falls in love with the first girl that will show signs of enjoying his qualities a bit, but then will fail to respond moderately to a rejection, because in his eyes a rejection is always a reminder of his clumsiness.
  • csalisbury
    1.4k
    Yeah, I do think she intended to portray Robert like that from the start, and I think you're right that Robert ties rejection and clumsiness (like when he's mad at himself trying to get the keys in the door.) One thing that's weird, though, is that there's a pattern where Margot gets turned on by his clumsiness.

    I think I understand maybe what's going on with Margot (since I've been the Margot once or twice irl) and I suspect the author does too (which makes the ending even more frustrating, but also might explain the temptation to end it that way).

    Some quotes, all in a row, to highlight part of where I think Margot's coming from, in relation to Robert's clumsiness:

    It was a terrible kiss, shockingly bad; Margot had trouble believing that a grown man could possibly be so bad at kissing. It seemed awful, yet somehow it also gave her that tender feeling toward him again, the sense that even though he was older than her, she knew something he didn’t. — story

    She was starting to think that she understood him—how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded—and that made her feel closer to him, and also powerful, because once she knew how to hurt him she also knew how he could be soothed. — story

    By her third beer, she was thinking about what it would be like to have sex with Robert. Probably it would be like that bad kiss, clumsy and excessive, but imagining how excited he would be, how hungry and eager to impress her, she felt a twinge of desire pluck at her belly, as distinct and painful as the snap of an elastic band against her skin. — story

    She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if she were something too bright and painful to look at, and that was sexy, too, being made to feel like a kind of irresistible temptation. — story

    and finally

    As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.

    The more she imagined his arousal, the more turned-on she got

    Every time Margot has a spike of sexual interest*, its tied to having power over Robert - he wants her more than she wants him and so she's more self-possessed and poised than him. The clumsier he is, the more desirable she feels by contrast. The problem with this kind of arousal is that its almost pure fantasy, and prone to evaporate at any moment. Will definitely evaporate after the sex. And what you're left with, invariably, is a really shitty feeling, that is hard to come to grips with, especially because of course now the other person feels close to you, and you feel more distant than ever. You wanted to get off to them wanting you ---perhaps because you know, deep down, that you yourself are liable to be a Robert to someone else's Margot, frustrated and scared with the keys, and that hurts, and you don't want to think about it, and this lets you pretend you won't ever have to have that happen. So you want to get off to them wanting you. You don't want to want one another together. That wasn't the point, and now you have to face the fact that you led to other person to think it was.

    I don't think this fully explains Margot. There's clearly a bunch of different things going on with her. The author's really good here. Margot has a lot going on, and she herself can't quite make coherent all the things going on, and thats just how it is with this stuff. But this particular aspect of her is the one that dominates most from the bar on to the sex. As it subsides, she feels like shit.

    I think that's why the ending is bad, and also why you can see why the author might be tempted to use it - its pure fantasy (even if endings like that really do happen)The void that the fantasy covers up: I feel really bad and confused and uncomfortable about what happened and I don't know to what extent I was indulging certain drives I'm not comfortable with seeing as part of myself. Robert being a monster is a convenient way to solve all of this.

    It's frustrating though, because the author seems very self-aware of what Margot is doing, and to interrogate both characters masterfully. Up until the end.


    *importantly: this is very different than the 'crush' feeling she sometimes gets. The way she sees Robert and relates to him is very different at those moments
  • Πετροκότσυφας
    783
    So you want to get off to them wanting you. You don't want to want one another together. That wasn't the point, and now you have to face the fact that you led to other person to think it was.csalisbury

    I didn't get that feeling while reading the story. His clumsiness really was a turn on, but I took it to be conditional. It's not so much the power over him she was after, it's just that this feeling made her feel safer at the time. But once it would have been cleared out that she wasn't in danger (of being rejected or murdered or whatever), she hoped that he would catch up. He would kiss better, be less vulnerable etc. But he didn't, he got worse and that was the ultimate turn off. That's why she thinks that in the end Robert might "really had done nothing wrong" and she was being mean. And then you have the end where clumsiness ultimately becomes the source of badness and danger. So, there was an evolution to the feelings that clumsiness produces: from feeling cozy and turned on to feeling frustrated and turned off to feeling sick and scared to feeling justified and relieved for her own behaviour cause probably he was like that all the time.

    By the way, what was more surprising to me than the ending, was the reason she were refused entrance at the bar. I would not have thought that 21 was the age requirement for entrance in a bar and having read immediately before that she might were too casually dressed, I initially thought that this was the reason she was denied!
  • StreetlightX
    2.7k
    I read the story around the same time as the Aziz Ansari 'story' broke (I think because of it, the piece having been published about a month before), so I can't divorce my reading of it from that general atmospherics of 'bad sex as a societal phenomenon'. I think you're right to highlight the strange game of power going on, and one of the things I thought a bit about in the wake of both the Ansari story and Cat Person is that we're just really bad at playing games with sexual power.

    Or rather, we play games that we don't even know that we're playing; Or, we have these hazy outlines, absorbed through a mishmash of observation, gossip, some mixed experiences, and we do - or think we do - what we're 'supposed to', and you commit yourself to this network of expectations you (or your partner) didn't even quite know you've bought into. And normally this is fine (life is like that) except no one wants to talk about this stuff because sex is still treated as this weird and dirty thing that you can only whisper about, even as we're meant to be this sexually liberated society - which ends up confusing things even more.

    So you have Nice Guys who do the Right Thing and still can't get laid, or end up being rejected like Robert, and they didn't do anything Bad, which is just jet-fuel for resentment - incipt 'incels'. So one thing I don't think than can be done is to give a purely psychological reading of the story: I don't think there's alot more 'going on' with either Margot or Robert than what's described in the story; or at least, what's going on is that neither has any idea of why they do what they do beyond the fact that they 'know what they feel'. I think anything they'd say, if you were to ask them 'now', would just be back-projection.
  • TimeLine
    2.7k
    I don't think there's alot more 'going on' with either Margot or Robert than what's described in the story; or at least, what's going on is that neither has any idea of why they do what they do beyond the fact that they 'know what they feel'.StreetlightX

    There is an honesty that is very rarely expressed in literature of this nature, namely the protagonist was aroused by this idea that he desired her or her perfection and the idea that she is all that he would ever want and that egotistical arousal enabled the erotic encounter; that stunned look and stupid pleasure despite their clear sexual incompatibility. Her imaginary partner - the ideal boyfriend - yet again paints an interesting picture of how we can create this imagined person that we project outward into experiences with others in an almost delusional manner, until suddenly we realise who that actual person is and what we wanted them to be. She had the feelings that something was wrong with him and with the situation she found herself in but she excused it with imagined ideas, even later when she pretended to tell him about a gay high school boyfriend was clarity of her fear of him. She knew how to please him, clear when she reflexively stated that she was nervous as she became aware previously that he found her naivety or youth pleasing. It is all the lies we tell ourselves when the reality is plain and manifest.

    He clearly had no understanding of her, for him it was all about him, he was a terrible kisser, terrible at foreplay and terrible at sex and yet he happily talked about his pleasure and happiness without realising at all how she felt. He was a sociopath.
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