Bobcat and Other Stories
By Rebecca Lee
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013
Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories came out of nowhere to knock me out. It sounded intriguing on NetGalley, and the cover blurb by Ben Fountain, whom I trust implicitly, convinced me to read this slim collection of seven stories.
Fountain captures what Lee does better than I can (although I’ll still add my thoughts below): “Rebecca Lee writes with the unflinching, cumulatively devastating precision of Chekhov and Munro, peeling back layer after layer of illusion until we’re left with the truth of ourselves. Practically every line is a revelation of language, of character, of experience; Lee’s lyricism stalks our hearts like a gorgeous assassin.” (Now you know why you need to read Fountain’s two books.)
Lee’s stories are written with such observational precision and linguistic brilliance that they approach perfection. A reviewer who compares a writer to Chekhov and Munro is trespassing on dangerous territory, since that is rarely the case. But with Lee it is at least arguably true. Her prose has an elegance and surface calm that slowly seduces the reader, while her stories cut deeply into the psyches of her characters. Every sentence has a light touch, yet is fraught with consequence. In that regard, she often reminds me of Graham Greene, who similarly explored his characters with a dry, clear-eyed analysis. Lee probes the dreams, delusions, hypocrisies, and endearing foibles of her characters with intriguing and often surprising results. Her stories rarely go where you expect them to, a bit like life itself.
The opening title story appears at first to be a typical WASP-y dinner party, but the conversation veers in a surprising direction. The hostess narrator works diligently to prepare the meal and keep everything under control both on and around the dinner table. But people are not as easily managed as a meal, particularly when marriage is the issue. Suspicion centers on the affair of a particular character, a male colleague of the narrator’s. A passing conversation about the Donner party foreshadows later developments. One guest’s story about being mauled by a bobcat — received skeptically by the narrator and her best friend — heightens the sense of impending disaster.
“‘We gotta somehow look up her sleeve,’ Lizbet said, ‘and see the type of scar it is.'” The narrator’s husband responds, “‘You two are crazy. You need to not spend time alone together.'”
Lee’s understanding of the nature of such dinner parties makes for an appealing first-person narrator, who observes, “Every dinner party by the end is a bit of a defeat. After the halfway mark, when everybody is still in high-spirits, some even intoxicated, and the dessert still hasn’t arrived, there is a moment when it seems like we are the most interesting dinner party in Manhattan tonight, we love each other, and we should do this all the time, why don’t we do this all the time? Everybody is calculating when they can invite everybody to their house for the next dinner party. But then there is a subtle shift downward. Somebody is a little too drunk. The bird, which was a bronze talismanic centerpiece, golden and thriving, is revealed as a collection of bones” (p. 27).
As is often the case, the suspicions of adultery are misdirected. One never knows where one will find trouble, but it often occurs when and where you least expect it, like at the end of a generally pleasant evening with friends.
In “Slatland,” Margit, a depressed 11-year-old, is sent to see an eccentric child psychology professor (a colleague of her father’s) for therapy. The professor’s unorthodox demeanor and advice confuse the girl, but he succeeds in helping her figure out the source of her melancholy and a strategy for coping with it. Years later, she encounters difficulty in her marriage to a Romanian graduate geology student who works with her father. He has a secret that drives the narrator back to Professor Pine for professional advice. The solution once again involves visiting “Slatland,” which is best experienced within the context of the story rather than described in a book review. Suffice to say, magical realism can take place on the plains of Saskatchewan, too.
Lee’s stories range far. They take place in New York City and New England, Montana and Saskatchewan (where Lee was raised), Chicago and rural Wisconsin, coastal Carolina and Hong Kong.
“Min” begins on a university campus (as several stories do) and moves to Hong Kong, the home of Min, one of the students. The narrator, Sarah, and Min are in a close platonic relationship that leads to Sarah accompanying Min on his return trip home. She is surprised to learn that he comes from a wealthy and powerful Chinese family with a stunning hillside home. “The house was green and sprawling, overlooking a small back of the South China Sea,” she observes (p. 107). Min enticed Sarah to Hong Kong with the promise from his father of a job. His father’s plans to select a young woman for an arranged marriage with Min soon involve Sarah, but not in the way the reader might expect.
It appears that Lee and/or her editor have chosen to save her best (most acclaimed) story for the penultimate spot in this collection. “Fialta” won the National Magazine Award for fiction when it was published in Zoetrope in 2000. (Interestingly, the stories here run from 1992 to 2012, suggesting that, while Lee is an accomplished writer, she is far from prolific.) “Fialta” details the rite of passage of a young architecture student working under the tutelage of Franklin Stadbakken, “the so-called architect of the prairies,” a Frank Lloyd Wright-like genius whose glory days are long past but whose cult of acolytes continues to thrive at his sprawling workshop on his Wisconsin farm, Fialta.
“You could say that Fialta was not quite in its prime. Its reputation was fading a little, and all its surfaces tarnishing, but so beautifully that Fialta was a more romantic place than it must have been even at the height of its influence, something that could be said of Stadbakken as well” (p. 163).
The narrator quickly falls in love with a second-year disciple referred to only as Sands. “I was already developing a rule never to look at Sands, in order not to give myself away and make her nervous. But there was something in her — some combination of joy and intelligence and seriousness — that seemed unrepeatable to me. Her voice had a vaguely foreign sound to it, a rough inflection left over from someplace in the world that I couldn’t quite locate. Her clothes were as plain as possible and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, all as if she were trying to overcome beauty, but this would be like lashing down sails in a high wind. You might get a hand on one stretch, but then the rest would fly away, billowing out” (pp. 164-165). Read those lines again, aloud, and you’ll hear the music in Lee’s prose.
The narrator is reading a biography of Stadbakken and tells another student-architect nicknamed Groovy that “‘[t]he book says he loves unrequited love, and once love is requited he seeks to make it unrequited.’
‘I see that a lot,’ Groovy said.
‘Yeah, everybody loves a train in the distance.'” (p. 171)
As it turns out, the narrator is not the only man in love with Sands. As with most educational experiences, one usually ends up learning more about his fellow human beings and the workings of the world outside of the classroom.
Bobcat and Other Stories is a collection that one can race through, but readers are advised to slow down and enjoy the journey. A more methodical pace will reveal what might easily be missed, just as Lee does in these stories of her characters’ varied epiphanies.