“Cat Person”: The Key to a Short Story’s Viral Success
“Cat Person” takes some time to read. When I first found out it went viral, I was surprised because it’s not like the content that normally goes viral. It’s not a novelty. There’s a lot of substance to the story and characters.
So what made a short work of literary fiction like “Cat Person” go viral on the internet, where clickbait, how-to guides, and easily digestible content dominate?
In case you’re unfamiliar, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” appeared in the December 2017 issue of The New Yorker. It subsequently went viral and sparked online discussions and debates. This is an analysis of the story and its merits, so I have to warn you it will venture into spoiler territory.
The premise is basic: Margot, a twenty-year-old college student, meets Robert, a man in his thirties, at a movie theater. They flirt via text. As the story progresses, Margot learns more about Robert. Roupenian shows us the relationship through Margot’s lens, although the story is written in the third person. It’s all very familiar and finely detailed, like we’re watching a movie. The flirtation via text, the images of slumpy, dumpy Robert and his bachelor pad, the bar scene, in which — to her embarrassment — he learns she isn’t yet 21. This is the story of any-girl and any-guy USA, but because of Roupenian’s well-trained eye and craft, they aren’t just types.
Who cares? There are hundreds of well-crafted stories that grace the pages of the internet everyday. For starters, Roupenian’s craft is spot-on. She is a master of the musicality in writing, which is basically the art of crafting “the same flow of scene, emotionality, and direct focus that great movie themes give to great films.” From the outset, you are directly focused on Margot and her emotional landscape as it pertains to Robert. It moves seamlessly with accessible language, rhythmic sentences, and direct images so that the reader can immerse herself in Margot’s story without thinking about the writing. Like any good writing, it’s akin to hypnosis.
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.”
The first sentence reads like the action it describes — quick, rhythmic, but long enough to imply that the moment is pronounced — a gesture of sweetness from Robert that stands out to Margot. Then, “On the walk back to her dorm, she was filled with a sparkly lightness that she recognized as the sign of an incipient crush.”
This is all very relatable and Roupenian draws us into the story with relatable imagery, dialogue, and wording so that we are not lost by the time the story reaches its crucial scene. By the time it gets there, we can see exactly why (SPOILER ALERT) Margot chooses to go back to Robert’s house with him. Yes, there are times we doubt Robert and ask ourselves why she’s dating him, and the author means for him to be slightly questionable. Yet there’s absolutely nothing unbelievable about him, nor is there anything unbelievable about Margot’s crush. When she decides to go back to his house, it’s on a drunken whim. The stage is set for the scene that raises all the questions and issues readers focus on after finishing the story.
Margot goes back to Robert’s house, and what follows is a sex scene that makes you question Margot and Robert’s characters. Up to this point, it’s like you’ve been reading someone’s diary narrated in the third person. You’re still in that mode during the sex scene, but it’s complex — it’s not black and white as to whether someone is right or wrong.
The scene raises many questions, such as, was Robert manipulating her all along by telling her he has a cat? There’s no sign of one at his house. Has Margot been conditioned by society to believe she has to say yes to sex, because it will reflect on her poorly if she doesn’t, even though she feels revulsion and is uncomfortable? Has Robert been taught by the male gaze in porn and movies to act a certain despicable way during sex?
On the periphery, and it’s subtle, is the thought of rape. Roupenian knows this thought will be there for the reader — someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes in America. Roupenian doesn’t take it there, she steers clear of the encounter being rape, but some of Robert’s mannerisms and language seem a little, well, rapey. It’s not hard to imagine the story going a different way, a scenario in which she says “no” and he keeps at it anyway. As is, the only thing keeping her from saying no is a shameful feeling of complicity in the whole affair.
Roupenian masterfully uses her craft to get you to a place where you’re thinking about, and questioning, male-female sexual relations in America today. As we’re seeing with the #MeToo movement, many a sexual encounter is not far off from being a sexual assault.
What distances Margot and Robert’s encounter from rape is the fact that she never says “no” out loud. But if he had sensed her discomfort and asked if she wanted to go through with it, she probably would not have said “yes.” It’s not rape, but it’s not what consensual sex should be.
So what caused “Cat Person” to become a viral phenomenon that helped earn Roupenian a seven-figure book deal? A combination of hypnotic craft and a theme that’s very much of-the-moment. For women, this is a perennial theme, but right now it’s in the spotlight. Through “Cat Person,” you see a recognizable picture of a modern reality. It’s not pretty, but maybe that’s the point.
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