“Cat Person” in the uncanny valley

I swear I read “Cat Person” when it first came out although I found it so tedious an affair that everything about it is a void in my mind. However I’ve been open about how the period of 2016-18 was not the best for my mental health and it’s possible my inability to remember a single detail of the story was less about the craft of it and more about my own depression. With that in mind, when this story became the focal point of the Twitter discourse cycle, I decided to re-read it.

And in less than a minute I encountered this absolute clunker of a paragraph:

After the movie, he came back to her. “Concession-stand girl, give me your phone number,” he said, and, surprising herself, she did.

It doesn’t get better. Margot is an incredibly tedious subject. Her internal monolog is a mixture of vaguely bourgeois relationship anxiety and badly timed Whedonesque quippery. Of course it’s hard to generate much sympathy for a protagonist when her thoughts are narrated like this, “Looking at him like that, so awkwardly bent, his belly thick and soft and covered with hair, Margot recoiled. ” It’s not even the casual disgust at fat bodies that bothers me as much as how pedestrian this psychodrama is. Oh no. The protagonist is feeling regret at the sex she’s about to have because the man is a bit fat. Having re-read “Cat Person” in the cold light of 2021 reiterates my initial view of it. That it’s a dull story about two very dull people whose dull tryst leads to a dull revelation about pain and misogyny that undercuts itself at every turn by how little agency it assigns its protagonist.

But then someone came forward and said she was the subject and it set off a discourse cycle about authors using the people they know in their writing. Two principal camps emerged: 1) that this is just how writers go about building out their worlds and 2) that this was an intrusion into the privacy of a person even if it was lamp-shaded with a fiction.

One commentator from the second camp even went so far as to describe it as a theft, that the author of “Cat Person” had stolen a bit of this woman’s life to use as the basis for her story. In this I must be a yes-sayer. This is a theft. And that’s fine. Because artists should be criminals and outlaws. The problem here is not that Kristen Roupenian is a thief of another’s life. The problem is that she’s not a particularly talented thief and what she has created is not Alexis Nowicki but is rather a weak simulacrum imbued with just enough of the latter’s personality to make it recognizable while still being little more than a paper doll to dress up in the clothes of her attempt to explore the frustrations of dating.

Let’s be honest, authors talk about people as part of their art. I’m talking about Roupenian and Nowicki directly in this article because, as a critic, I don’t have the luxury of putting a fictive screen in front of my subject but, consciously or not, an author will draw from their experience of the mannerisms, cadences and motivations of the people around them in the construction of a fictional character. We might like to imagine the author alone in an off-grid shed, entirely disconnected from the world, and giving birth to their creations like they are Zeus birthing Athena but this is hardly the case.

The Creative Process

Art is created in a social field and an artist is first and foremost someone communicating within that social field. Characters do not arise ex-nihilo but rather through a process of creative destruction wherein an author’s sense of a subject is disassembled and used as the ground from which their creative objects arise. An artist, like it or not, has something to say about the world and if they’re talking about people that implies they have something to say about real, material, people.

But bad art doesn’t necessarily accomplish this well. And this, I think, is where the discomfort so many people feel with “Cat Person” arises. Margot is hardly a person. She’s a hollow shell of a person – mannerisms, jobs, ages and easily identified quirks but there’s nothing there beyond this. Her terribly banal inner monolog is almost precisely the same “professor has a mid-life crisis and dates his student” sort of story that detractors of “lit-fic” like to point to about What Is Wrong With The Genre and it’s not made better by having the point of view inverted to the student rather than the older man. The character is dragged through her own story by Robert and Tamara. Her monolog is an endless litany of banal and common-place complaints. Regrets over mistakes, things not said, a kind of Freudian reaction to dating and life that is buried behind the metaphoric screen memory of neo-passéist realism. When that inane internality is stripped away from the character, what we’re left with is just what you could find out about anybody through a facebook crawl: brands liked, photos of pets, nights at specific bars. This story wants you to know these are New York daters but the setting is flat. What is created isn’t a living breathing city, it isn’t even a flat sound-stage reproduction. It’s empty boxes with names attached.

When you close your eyes and imagine the theatre Margot works at, all that’s summoned to mind is a pack of twizzlers and a pudgy man. The Seven-Eleven is just what could be said about it anywhere: a harsh white-yellow light inside, a garish orange and green sign without. Brand markers stand in for any viceral sense of place.

With this flat and empty prose it’s not surprising that Nowicki and her friends are unnerved. I think I’d be equally unnerved to find out that somebody was using a photograph of my head to construct amateurish paper dolls. But the problem isn’t, in fact, that the Roupenian used Nowicki’s life in her work but rather that she did so with such ham-fisted disregard for the person she was observing. She created a world made entirely of flat surfaces and the flattest surface of all is Margot’s affect. Who wants to look at that and see themselves?

Art is theft. And art isn’t nice. Authors hardly have a choice but to use the people around them as grist for the creative mill; even if the author wants to lie to themself and say that they create like Zeus created Athena, they are forgetting that Zeus only gave birth in this startling way because he swallowed Metis whole. Metis, the Titaness who stands for creative ingenuity was a person taken in by Zeus in the process of his creation, and through the deconstruction of Metis, Athena was born. Fictive creation depends on the materiality of the world for it to be produced. There will always be a violence to art, a destructive one. The challenge is to make it loving.

And the absence of love is, I think, where the failure of “Cat Person” arises most clearly. There’s no sense in the story that Margot is an object of love. “Whore,” Robert calls her at the end. And while it is made painfully evident that Robert has no idea who Margot is, there’s no self-love in Margot to balance against the ways Robert objectifies her. Inside and out, Margot remains not much more than an object, navigated by a seemingly disinterested author through empty rooms full of brand markers and empty thoughts full of anxiety and ennui. Effort is made to fully realize the revulsion Robert conjures but no effort is made to elevate Margot beyond the flat affect with which Robert views her.

I think the discourse that surrounds this story and its camps is in part a failure of criticism. “Cat Person” is not a good short story. It’s tedious and passé. It attempts to dig at misogyny but does so with all the grace of a decade-old “manspreading” article. It is a story so revulsed by materiality that the meat of the story lies entirely within the heart of the protagonist, unfortunately it is a story whose protagonist has a heart as real as a child’s paper cut-out of the same. To point to this and say, “see! Thief!” is almost embarrassing because it is such a poor grade of theft. Artists who think creation of character is possible without reference to real people lack self-examination on the matter. Readers who think this are naïve at best. Even Athena was born from an artist’s deconstruction of another. Zeus destroyed Metis to create Athena. Artists must be thieves. There is no real choice in that. But this is neither an indication of good or bad art. And ultimately, when the discourse and the camps are stripped away, what we are left with in the case of “Cat Person” is a bad portrait and a subject whose friends said, “this portrait sucks.”