Rebecca Lee, one of our most gifted and original short story writers, guides readers into a range of landscapes, both foreign and domestic, crafting stories as rich as novels. A student plagiarizes a paper and holds fast to her alibi until she finds herself complicit in the resurrection of one professor's shadowy past. A dinner party becomes the occasion for the dissolution of more than one marriage. A woman is hired to find a wife for the one true soulmate she's ever found. In all, Rebecca Lee traverses the terrain of infidelity, obligation, sacrifice, jealousy, and yet finally, optimism. Showing people at their most vulnerable, Lee creates characters so wonderfully flawed, so driven by their desire, so compelled to make sense of their human condition, that it's impossible not to feel for them when their fragile belief in romantic love, domestic bliss, or academic seclusion fails to provide them with the sort of force field they'd expected.
After reading Rebecca Lee's stories, which are certainly MFA-ey (all but one take place on university campuses) but which try with moderate success to adopt an NYC-ey detachment (she is excellent at sketching many diverting types from the outside, but not so much at getting inside or protagonizing them without protagonistically making them into the same person, I suspect someone much like herself), I can conclude that at least one thing MFA and NYC have in common is a deep interest in who's sleeping with whom. But she doesn't make it seem too gossipy, and all the characters are basically decent which is nice, and these were well crafted and if I am starting to forget them like so much "the fruits of one's fellow writing workshop participants," that says less about Lee's good work and more about the fundamental unseriousness with which I live my own life--and who says anyway that we shouldn't meet our authors amid the turmoil of this life just to embrace once and then depart and forget?
Narrating in the first person works well for these little tales that are each picture-perfect in their own way. I was reminded of a delving into a rich buffet of stories, wishing for another ‘chapter’ in many cases, but always very involved and ultimately impressed.
There are several themes that appear in these short tales. Most have a connection to a college campus and it’s obvious that Lee loves these settings as she describes buildings, professors, and the intellectual atmosphere of the places. She writes about the interrelationships between people, identity and choice, and both what’s on the surface and underneath the appearances of our lives. Several characters have interesting tics, some have warm, strong personalities or families, some have political or global connections, and many are going through transition.
Rebecca Lee says that she is a very slow writer, but I think that works well for her. In an interview online, she mentioned something that John Gardner said about revision: that the first draft is building the home and the subsequent drafts are living in it. That’s an excellent description of the level of her writing - ‘living inside the work’. I know that I will revisit these stories and will find them just as fascinating a second and third time. This is highly recommended for readers who love excellent short story collections.
Each story in Rebecca Lee's book Bobcat and Other Stories is cleverly crafted, and each of her sentences is a delicious treat. The author is able to create interesting characters that are vividly brought to life, and her scenarios are so inventive and bizarre that you feel that somehow they must be halfway true. Of course, her stories are so literate that they may only appeal to a certain segment of the population, but I see nothing wrong with that.
How fortunate for future writers that the author is also a teacher of creative writing. If she can convey her genius to her students, they are incredibly blessed.
After reading this book I immediately obtained her novel "The City is a Rising Tide," and I look forward to more pleasurable reading.
There'll be a full review at RB later this week but, really, why bother. Skip this book.
A number of the stories feature characters bumping of against the fringes of events whose historical sweep they can’t possibly understand. In “The Banks of the Vistula,” an unprepared freshman plagiarizes an essay for her Introductory Linguistics course. This kicks of a series of consequences that lead her ever farther out of her depth, and into the teeth of an intensely personal debate about Soviet collaborators in occupied Poland at the close of World War II.
In “Min,” an American college student from Montana spends the summer in Hong Kong during the Vietnamese refugee crisis of 1981. She’s staying with the family of the Chinese man charged with managing the crisis. From her position as a guest in a small enclave of wealth and power, she tries to see clearly the social and historical forces that are swirling outside, while at the same time playing her appointed part in her host’s household drama. The whole of the interplay between personal and social dramas in these stories is much greater than the sum of their parts.
Stylistically, Lee sometimes assembles lucid stories out of fragments and digressions she’s unafraid to leave behind. If there’s a gun on the mantle in the first scene, there’s little reason to expect it to appear again. For example, “Min” begins with a faculty committee hearing for a professor accused of inappropriate behavior toward his female students. There’s wonderful tension and intrigue, and a great sketch of the professor’s character. But it turns out this scene, which would itself be fodder for a first-rate story, is the occasion on which the story’s two main characters met, and is never revisited in any important way.
The title story is an entire bouquet of fragments and digressions-- bits of backstory, memories of the narrator-- that work together in a way that gives the story tons of depth. From the bird’s-eye perspective, the story is a long account of a painful dinner party. But the glimpses Lee gives us leave me feeling as if I understand these characters better than I understand some of my own friends.
Lee writes in a distinctive voice that is uniform throughout the stories. It’s deliberate and sensitive, with sharp observations, surprising phrasings, and subtle humor, sometimes all at once, as when a character says of her colleague in the history department: “She used history in the most chilling way possible, as a metaphor for events in her own life.” In another favorite passage, Lee perfectly describes the exact moment dinner parties go sour. Everything is going great, “but then there is the 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 crazy bones.” Lee’s voice works well in every story, whether narrated by a middle-aged professor, a college freshman, or an apprentice architect. But the consistent voice does blunt the impact of the book if you binge-read it. (Why do all these different characters sound alike?)
Lee also has a few go-to tricks that can be distracting if you don’t let the stories settle for a while. In several stories, the narrator offers an earnest evaluation of the recent publications of her/his friends and colleagues. Many characters deploy quotations in conversation-- from Ovid more than once. More than one character has a facial tic. These are always effective an appropriate techniques in the stories in which they appear, but when you see them three or four times in one day, it starts to feel like we’re catching a glimpse of the puppet strings.
So: if you have any kind of soft spot for American short fiction, definitely read Bobcat. Every single story is great. Just maybe take it at a pace of one story a week, no matter how much you want to keep reading, so as to get the full impact of each.
I'm jealous. I wish I could write like this.
Rebecca Lee uses humor wonderfully--a stressed dinner party hostess blurts out that she has a "favorite" member of the Donner Party--but she is never quirky for the sake of being quirky. At least a couple of these stories have the kind of richness of character and detail and theme I hope for (but don't always find) in a novel.
These are mature stories about people who are working at being mature themselves. I can certainly relate to that. Highly recommended.
Physically the book could use some improvement. The cover promptly became unglued. The gratuitous quote on the front jacket would be better off omitted.
A total aside that has nothing remotely to do with this review or the book, but a very strange coincidence...last week, after over thirty years living in this neighbourhood, we saw a bobcat carrying a small marmot in its mouth. Last night the critter appeared in our backyard and stared us down for a few minutes before retreating into the night. Anyways, thank you Early Reviewers and Algonquin Press for the book.
Lee's characters are so fundamentally real. It's odd. When I sit back and think about them outside of the act of reading them, they seem so...perhaps too...self-aware and self-reflective. I have the thought, "Surely, not everyone on the planet is this introspective." Yet, when I step back into the next story, its narrator again seems someone I can reach out and touch, someone I know, someone real.
Most of the stories end on an inhale, a moment when the situation is understood or the problem is defined, but the future is only vaguely indicated. I usually do not care for this but it worked very well here, causing me to think about, "What might this go? What will be the path taken from the present we see to final ending that Lee prefigures?"
I wouldn't say that these stories deliver any great insights or life-changing moments, but they are alive and heartbreaking and eminently readable.
In fact, university students may enjoy a few of the stories because they do take place on a campus (all but the first and last). The collection itself can be studied. For example, compare "Bobcat" and "Settlers" because both involve dinner parties. Or "The Banks of the Vistula" and "Fialta" to compare the professor/student relationship.
My favourite story is "Min" partly because its story has the breadth and depth and plot of a novel, but it moves along swiftly and succinctly in short story form.
I admit that I don't understand "Bobcat." Its ending was too abrupt for me and left me with too many questions. The reference at the end, "she formed the perfect answer to the question that was County Clanagh" is too vague for me. I know County Clanagh refers to the narrator's honeymoon when she came across her husband inexplicably crying, but does that mean he was crying then already about the "she" in the quotation? The theme of adultery is clear in the story, and the narrator thinks someone should tell the wife whose husband is cheating that she is being cuckolded, so the irony is clear, but the leap is just a little to big for me in the swift ending of the story. Perhaps that is meant to mimic the feeling that one has in such a situation. Life seems to crash in those moments when knowledge which had been bubbling under the surface suddenly bursts out in front of you. Or perhaps there is another explanation.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and thank LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for awarding me this copy.