Did you know there's a dazzling, perplexing fiction writer teaching down at UNC-Wilmington? I didn't until I got my hands on Bobcat and Other Stories, a phenomenal short story collection by Rebecca Lee.
With their thin, glossy layers of recurring fixations blended into profoundly ambiguous narrative colors, these seven stories won't appeal to anyone who likes a journey with a clear destination. But if you enjoy concentric circles of thought clad in wit and spectacular writing, Bobcat is going to rip you a new one.
Coming after her 2006 debut novel, The City Is a Rising Tide, these short stories are usually set amid or in proximity to academic, literary or campus life. Their precisely meandering plots are driven either by geopolitical tensions as embodied in relationships between American and foreign characters, by the dynamics of futile love and marital infidelity, or by some rare tincture of both. They all betray a sense of thwarted moral justice and an alertness to implicit power dynamics, and they're frequently given to textbook-style digressions on theory, history and human rights issues.
The problem with this characterization is that none of it captures the book's real draw: its uncanny feel. The scenarios are parameters within which the action moves very oddly—a dreamlike ricochet where you never know what you'll find around the next bend. Rather than honing down sharp epiphanies, Lee orchestrates fine-grained, fleeting moments of cognitive texture into dense ecosystems of atmosphere and emotion that raise a lot more questions than they answer.
The title story finds Lee on her surest footing, the tragicomedy of manners in a literary sphere. She sets a table with a luxuriously described terrine and surrounds it with an equally rich cast of pitch-perfect types: the narrator, a pragmatic human rights lawyer; her husband, who has written a novel full of steamy sex about a thinly disguised Iraq; his editor, whom the narrator believes inspired what she considers her husband's fictional affair; Lizbet, whose book on the lost Gnostic Gospels was "being marketed as the thinking woman's The Da Vinci Code"; and Susan, whose spiritual condescension since being mauled by a bobcat (the subject of her memoir) is but one destabilizing element rippling this social microcosm.
Another is an affair that everyone knows Kitty's husband is having with "a paralegal so beautiful it was hard to form any other opinions of her." Lee brilliantly calibrates these tremors of secret knowledge against each other amid the arc of a dinner party. As the book editor awaits the delivery of a Salman Rushdie manuscript and the narrator awaits an important legal decision, the story implacably bears inward on the reader, apropos of the book's John Ashbery epigraph: "Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,/ At incredible speed[.]" That the arrival occurs in such an unexpected fashion makes for a sublimely strange, open-ended conclusion.
"The Banks of the Vistula" engages a young student and a professor with a murky Soviet past in a game of cultural cat-and-mouse over a paper they both know she plagiarized. "Min" is about an American enlisted to choose a bride for the titular Chinese man she ambiguously loves. "Settlers" checks in with a group of partners and friends just after the release of the infamous Starr Report in 1998 and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, conceiving of infidelity as a natural disaster. Though intensely sad, the story is packed with bone-dry barbs: "If you looked carefully," the narrator says of the husband she settles on, "he was a wonderful man."
These small moments make the biggest impact in Bobcat: a passing description of the weekend as "that gold nucleus of time"; an offhand comment about how grammars "rose out of history like a wing unfurling." The fine net catches up not just abstractions, but people—Solveig, a conspirator in "The Banks of the Vistula," carries her body like "a tract of nature she understood perfectly"—and the dynamics between them.
Lee is especially attentive to landscape, and not a story passes without an unforgettable depiction of one. Landing in Hong Kong is "like swiftly entering a jewel, a ruby." The Midwestern college in "The Banks of the Vistula" appears as "a rendition of thought itself, rising out of the head in intricate, heartbreaking cornices that became more abstract and complicated as they rose," an excellent description of the stories themselves.
Lee's ambition runs rampant on occasion. "Fialta," set in an architecture school, has the romantic, archetypal feel of Steven Millhauser—an elusive genius mentor in a high, grandly faded castle; mad designs and forbidden loves; moonlit trysts spied through telescopes—but without the light touch. It's that type of story where characters are constantly saying things such as, "What was that you read me from Vitruvius?" The borrowed literary finery bogs the story down, especially next to ruminations on the half-human, half-angelic nature of cows, whose "large hearts inside them had broken a hundred times before today." It's a bit much to hang on cows.
The faint symbolic echoes ringing through the stories reverberate the longest. The plagiarist in "The Banks of the Vistula" says of her professor, "[H]is word this entered me as it was meant to—quietly, with a sharp tip, but then, like an arrowhead, widening and widening, until it included the whole landscape around us." Then, in an elusive conclusion, the same shape flashes by as birds gather into "that familiar pointy hieroglyph, as they're told to do from deep within." This Möbius strip of inside and outside is the invisible skin that holds Bobcat's mysterious innards together.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Many distant cities."