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Pickle Me This

July 15, 2013

Bobcat by Rebecca Lee

My copy has a blue cover, which I found much more appealing than this one.

(My copy has a blue cover, which I found much more appealing than this one.)

I had only read the first story in Rebecca Lee’s short story collection Bobcat before I’d ordered a copy of her novel from the bookstore. Why, I wondered already, had this collection not been more hyped? Not until it was awarded the Danuta Gleed Award a few weeks back did it really come to my attention. But one story was all it took for me to realize that Lee is a writer approaching mastery of her craft. As significant, I think, as the fact that she received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is that she received it 21 years ago. That Lee has had time to grow and develop as a writer so she’s no ingenue, but instead her writing reveals a maturity that is most admirable. Her grasp of these stories was so firm, and her voice so strong that I knew I’d be wanting more of it. I look forward to reading her novel The City is a Rising Tide very soon.

Rebecca Lee’s short stories share the same approach as Sarah Selecky’s, the same intimate first-person narration, close attention to detail  that sets these characters as very much of this world (lines like “Lizbet basically knew how to live a happy life, and this was revealed in her trifle–she put in what she loved and left out what she didn’t”)–as well as dinner-party settings and fork on the cover. But on the other side, Lee’s marvelous telescoping endings and ultimate broadness of perspective remind me of the stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. (I think “Bobcat” may join Lahiri’s “The Fifth and Final Continent” as one of my favourite short stories ever.) These stories were written over two decades and accordingly the collection lacks a certain cohesion, except for (and this is significant) the solidity of Lee’s voice.

“One of the things Strandbakken had been struggling to teach us was that a building ought to express two things simultaneously. The first was permanence, that is, security and well-being, a sense that the building will endure through all sorts of weather and calamity. But it also ought to express an understanding of its mortality, that is, a sense that it is an individual and, as such, vulnerable to its own passing away from this earth. Buildings that don’t manage this second quality cannot properly be called architecture, he insisted. Even the simplest buildings, he said, ought to be productions of the imagination that attempt to describe and define life on earth, which of course is an overwhelming mix of stability and desire, fulfillment and longing, time and eternity.” –from “Fialta”

Lacking a certain cohesion (which in a collection this good is less a criticism than a statement of fact), yes, but there are more than a few points in common. Three of these stories take place in academic settings. These are stories written with an awareness of history and not just a general contemporariness. They are filled with allusions and references to actual places, people, and things. Though “Bobcat” is like this least of all, the first story, about a dinner party and so tightly contained within four walls that the effect is claustrophobic until the story’s incredible ending in which the whole thing explodes. A hostess is acutely aware of the inner lives and workings of her dinner guests, so much so that she’s blind to her own destiny. The people in this story are so vivid and real, and the ending was both incredible and heartbreaking. “The Banks of the Vistula” is a 1980s’  Cold War story (“But this was 1987, the beginning of perestroika, of glasnost and views of Russia were changing. Television showed a country of rain and difficulty and great humility, and Gorbachev was always bowing to sign something or other, his head bearing a mysterious stain shaped like a continent one could almost but not quite identify” [and how I love that “almost but not quite…]) about a university student who plagiarizes a linguistics paper from 1950s’ Soviet propaganda.

“Slatland” is a peculiar story about a strange psychologist and his impact on a young patient who returns to him years later looking for him to translate letters her Romanian fiance is writing to a woman whom she suspects is her fiance’s wife. In “Min”, another Midwestern university student travels to still-British Hong Kong and is enlisted with the job of selecting him a wife, as her friend’s diplomat father is being faced with the morally ambiguous task of deporting Vietnamese refugees. In “World Party”, a female professor during the 1970s’ uses her relationship with her (perhaps autistic?) son to decide the future of a male colleague who has been accused of a sexually inappropriate relationship with a student. And the final story is “Fialta”, in which architecture becomes analogous to story-writing and a group of students enrolled in an elite mentorship program fall in and out of love with one another, learn, come of age and of self,  and are each uniquely bound to their teacher for better or worse.

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