I haven’t been able to get YOU by Caroline Kepnes out of my head since I read it several months ago. For starters, Kepnes’ writing is excellent, an intoxicating mix of humor, horror, and heart. The book’s narrator, Joe Goldberg, is the most relatable psychopath since Tom Ripley. Like Ripley, Joe is surrounded by privilege that has been denied him, and hearing him bitterly opine on those around him is a sincere, pop-culture laced pleasure. His rivals for the affections of Beck (the titular “you” to whom the book is addressed) are so delightfully loathsome that it’s easy to sympathize with Joe’s hatred of them. From pretty-boy trust funder Benji, to cruel, insecure snob Peach, to the duplicitous, amoral Dr. Nicky—we like Joe better than anyone else in the book. Even though we know we shouldn’t.
Kepnes pulls off a number of difficult feats in the book, from making us sympathize with a psychopath, to using the notoriously difficult second person to stunning effect. YOU is compulsively readable. But as the book settled in further, I realized there was something darker and more compelling to this story for me than most thrillers, even ones as finely written as YOU.
The thing is, unlike Ripley or Sabastian Faulks’ creepy outsider Englby (another favorite of mine) Joe isn’t just captivating, he’s familiar. Luckily for me,I’ve never had a stalker or anything close to it (and before someone gets all #notallmen on me, I know that stalking and its many gradations are anomalies). Most men that I’ve known in my life have respected the lives, choices, and autonomy of the women around them. But any women who has put in her time in the dating pool has, at very least, had a few dates who made her a little…nervous. Even if the guy who wouldn’t stop calling, or the one who googled and memorized every last detail of your online life before your first date, or the one who desperately wanted you to tell him you loved him on the third date, wasn’t ever going to turn into a murderous psychopath. Probably.
Like any good horror story, YOU is thrilling because it lets us follow a narrative to its extreme and unlikely conclusion. Much like Glen Close’s lovesick, obsessive (probably mentally ill) character, Alex, in Fatal Attraction, we can see why Joe is charming and attractive at first. I mean, he’s a cute guy who works in an indie book store. I spent my entire 20s in New York hoping to be asked out in an indie bookstore! But unlike Fatal Attraction, which is from the POV of the stalked and handily makes a caricature of Alex, in YOU we get to see things from Joe’s perspective, and to horrify ourselves by empathizing with him.
The book adds an additional layer of creepy familiarity by taking on another omnipresent fear: that the constant stream of minutiae we put on social media might be turned against us—not by sophisticated North Korean hackers, but just by a regular (if intelligent) Joe. If someone wants to comb through all that we’ve made available of ourselves online, for most of us, they’d have plenty to work with. Imagine what could be discovered about you, how you could be manipulated, if someone spent enough time researching you online? There’s a dark thrill to exploring all of this within the safe confines of a novel. Maybe there’s even a little comfort for the reader in feeling that she can now count Joe as the devil she knows, can reassure herself that if she ever saw anything like him in real life, she’d run the hell away before he could so much as friend her on Facebook.