You—the debut novel by writer Caroline Kepnes—begins like a keyed-up Billy Joel fantasy. Joe Goldberg—charming, perceptive, and acutely aware of his service-sector lot in life—is working in a New York bookstore when MFA candidate Guinevere Beck walks in. Beck is pretty, perky, and slightly pampered, and the couple’s first, bantering encounter (straight out of a romantic comedy) carries with it the promise of both future misunderstandings and ultimate reconciliation. Of course, the novel’s blood-drenched cover promises something else entirely, as do Joe’s obsessive ruminations on Beck and his ominously evasive references to a prior failed relationship. It soon becomes clear that the novel’s cross-class romance is less “Uptown Girl” than it is Collector, with Joe going to extreme and amoral lengths to secure Beck’s affections.
Beck is the titular “you,” the object of Joe’s desires, and his interlocutor for the duration of the novel, but it is Joe himself who gives the book its raison d’être. Resentful, intelligent, and unreliable in the extreme, Joe is an expert feat of characterization: a kind of sociopathic Holden Caulfield with an added dash of mania. Kepnes has a masterful sense of pace when it comes to peeling back the layers of her characters; if something feels amiss in Joe’s elated account of his first meeting with Beck—an antic, excited, and slightly strung-out train of pop-culture references and run-on sentences—it is subtle enough to pass muster. Indeed, there is something beguiling about Joe’s narration, which reads like a kind of linguistic capering—intelligent and almost playful in its enthusiasm: “You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me—hello—when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?”
Finely-calibrated as Kepnes’ sense of voice is, though, it is her ability to wed the thriller form to trenchant social commentary that lifts her into the realm of a writer like Gillian Flynn. Joe in particular embodies an unusually complex web of class and gender-based neuroses, alternately exaggerating our worst societal tendencies and cutting through our most cherished pretenses.
Of course, the fact that You has anything worthwhile to contribute to the realm of societal critique is mildly surprising in and of itself. After all, the skeletal form of the story bears some unfortunately classist implications (beware of the unwashed male masses lusting after good little middle-class girls). It’s worth wondering, though, whether the Uptown Girl alternative—the idea that romantic union can smooth away all class conflict—is really so much better; at least in You, a kind of class-based tension is being brought out into the open. Besides, You is absolutely brimming with pointed observations about the frequent snobbishness and hypocrisy of the well-educated. Though Joe gamely insists that Beck herself is different, he finds himself waging an ongoing battle to pry her away from Peach, her old money, Ivy League friend; “No, what’s cool is the fact that you didn’t go to college. … I’m such a follower. My parents went to Brown, so I went to Brown” is a statement that is not only patently insincere, but also imaginable only on the lips of someone who could choose to forswear higher education for personal rather than financial reasons. And then, of course, there is Benji, Beck’s Ivy League ex. The price Joe exacts for Benji’s pretensions is particularly horrific, but there is a strange, dark, and wholly fitting comedy to the scenes in which Joe attempts to strip away Benji’s veneer of cutting-edge intellectualism:
I pick up the list of Benji’s five favorite books because we’ve got work to do:
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. He’s a pretentious fuck and a liar.
Underworld by Don DeLillo. He’s a snob.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He’s a spoiled passport-carrying fuck stunted in eighth grade.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Enough already.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. He’s got Mayflowers in his blood.
Benji has already failed tests on Gravity’s Rainbow (duh) and Underworld. He keeps saying he would have made a different list of books if he knew there was a test coming. That’s how privileged people think: Lie unless you know that you can’t get away with lying.
It is perhaps in the realm of gender, though, that Kepnes does her subtlest—and most powerful—work. Where Beck is concerned, Joe’s actions are obsessive, controlling, and even criminal, but what Kepnes so ably demonstrates is that this kind of behavior can both stem from and mask itself as “soft” sexism. This is not to say that Joe’s narration never dips into the more contemptuous language of extreme misogyny; it does. His vilest outbursts, though, are part and parcel of the schizophrenic cultural views he embodies. The man who feels Beck owes him sex as payment for a sympathetic ear and who sees her as a “glorious animal” mid-coitus is also the man who defends her as a chaste innocent; Beck is “beautiful,” he says, not “bangable,” and later insists that in allowing Beck to be “defil[ed]” by a “lecherous, Vans-clad semidoctor,” he has failed in his duty to protect her. To Joe, Beck is both victim and seductress—a naïve girl who deserves to be showered with affection and gifts (“Was I stingy with you?” Joe wonders, when things go sour) and a hypersexual, exhibitionist tease who needs strict supervision:
Beck, Beck, this was supposed to be our night, alone. I did this for you. Those slits were for me and that bra was for me and your panties were for me. How is this going to work if you can’t get through a few hours without looking for an audience? There’s a pact you make when you slide into a booth and shove your hand down a man’s pants Beck. There’s no tweeting when you’re fucking and what am I gonna do with you?
There is, of course, a common thread to these apparently irreconcilable beliefs, and it is one that is perfectly captured in Joe’s paternalistic, gently admonishing narration. Whether slutty or virginal, Beck is, in essence, a child to Joe—a being incapable of making her own decisions who must be placated and coddled but not truly heard. Witness, for example, the scene where Joe and Beck go shopping:
You sigh. “See, what I really want are jeggings.”
But what you really need is an orgasm and I tell you to try [the pants] on.
It’s in scenes like this one—scenes that reveal the possessive underside of chivalrous concern—that Kepnes truly shines (it’s no coincidence that Beck laughingly dubs Joe her “knight in shining armor”). Indeed, the novel is as much a deconstruction of romance itself as it is anything. Joe is highly familiar with the standard romantic arc and, as his numerous references to pop culture helpfully underscore, his attempts to corral Beck’s life into the form that suits him are also precisely the stuff of which love stories are made. Joe’s ideas about his and Beck’s future together are less hopes than they are a script, or perhaps a yardstick against which to measure reality. He views their interactions through the lens of romantic conventions, zooming outwards to assess their dates from a bird’s-eye view (“I glance around at the other IKEA ferry riders. None of them are like us. They’re all talking about end tables and Swedish foods. We are special. We are falling in love”) and grows angry when Beck deviates from the blueprint:
I want to tell you the answer [to my question] bad but I can’t. … The answer is so obvious, Beck. You’re supposed to tell me that you want to report Nicky to the authorities so they take away his license. You are supposed to tell me that you want his wife to kick him out and that you want him to die homeless, alone with a suitcase of scratched records and nowhere to play them. And then you are supposed to realize that you don’t really want that to happen. You should realize by now that you feel nothing for him. You should know that all you want is me.
Ultimately, Joe will force a love story on Beck, whether she wants it or not, and in doing so, he perhaps reveals something that is just the slightest bit unsavory about the signs and symbols of the traditional romance.
Of course, none of this is to say that You is without flaws; it suffers from a few, bloatedness being chief among them. At 422 pages, You is probably too long for the kind of novel that it is. Fascinating as Joe may be, his bitterness and misogyny begin to wear around the book’s midway point, and even his more charmingly exuberant moods start to feel exhausting; generally speaking, in order to sustain the reader’s interest in an unreliable and unpalatable narrator, you need to keep things moving at a fast clip, but long stretches of Kepnes’ You pass with little to while away the time but Joe’s increasingly unhinged ramblings. In the context of so smart a thriller, though, this is a comparatively minor sin. As Kepnes herself writes in her acknowledgments: “I want to thank Joe Goldberg for demanding to be heard. Well done, Joe.”
You was published in September 2014 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.
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