By Amber Wheeler Bacon
If I met Rebecca Lee at a party, I might be afraid to talk to her. Or I would have been until reading her collection, which makes topics like the Indochina refugee crisis, Eastern European politics during the Second World War, and yes, even terrines accessible to easily befuddled readers (and partygoers) like myself. Bobcat and Other Stories is precise, fluid and compulsively readable. These stories are shocking, too, sneaking up on the reader—stalking us, really, like the bobcat in the title story—revealing themselves fully only at the ends, or even after the stories are finished.
Michael Curtis, Lee’s editor at The Atlantic, called her stories “little novels,” and this is true. In Bobcat, for instance, we think we’re reading a story about a dinner party, then we think we’re reading about the extramarital affair of the narrator’s coworker. Susan, a guest at the dinner party, has just written a memoir about getting mauled by a bobcat in Nepal. She’s missing an arm. So, we decide we’re reading about Susan’s bobcat. Toward the end of the story, the narrator asks Susan, “When you say ‘bobcat,’ are you meaning it metaphorically or actually?” Susan replies, “I picture it as the fright of your life.”
The narrator’s fright then shows up just as casually and sneakily as Susan’s bobcat: “A plain woman at the door, in a long overcoat, asking for [the narrator’s] husband.” We’ve been given hints that something’s up with her marriage, but we, the readers, are distracted by the dinner party—by Ray’s affair, by Susan’s ordeal with the bobcat. The bobcat sneaks up on Susan while she’s kneeling at a small pond, and the woman at the door is just as stealthy. The story is then over and we’re damaged with the narrator by this woman, who does not leave, but “stays and stays” as the other guests walk out the door carrying their marzipan boats to go. Like Susan’s missing arm, what isn’t there, what we don’t know about this woman and her relationship to the narrator’s husband, hurts the most. How long, for instance, has this love affair been going on? And what makes this “plain woman” so special? We’re left with the questions we’d have if we were the ones betrayed.
And this is just the first story.
Each story in Lee’s collection works this way—the reader is not given a path of breadcrumbs to follow, but something more like a dichotomous key one might use to identify trees in a maritime forest. One characteristic or story element leads us to another one, though they might seem unconnected until the reader sees all the elements. Take the story, “Min,” which begins with a “somewhat inappropriate” relationship between a female student, Sarah, and a male professor. It then becomes about Sarah’s friend, Min, whose father (with Min’s approval we imagine) also happens to put Sarah into an uncomfortable position: she thinks she’s going to Hong Kong to assist in the refugee camps, but once she arrives, she realizes that her real job is to choose Min’s spouse. When Sarah finds out that Min will have an arranged marriage, she says, “Don’t you believe in desire?”
Looking back, in almost every scene there is some mention of desire, but the reader doesn’t realize it because there’s too much happening in the story. We’re concerned for the Vietnamese refugees who might be sent back to Vietnam. We’re concerned about Min’s father, who’s had a stroke. We’re also wondering about the strange love triangle between Sarah, Min and Rapti. The story also becomes about race, and we’re hoping, as Sarah is, that Min accepts Rapti, though she is Filipino.
Desire as defined by the story is something to keep, rather than fulfill. Instead of giving us a contrived version of desire via fulfillment, “Min”—along with the other stories in the collection—reveal a state of longing that can be missed in an of itself. Min’s dead grandmother wrote that a “superior woman” was “two-thirds contentment and one-third desire.” You could also say that each of Lee’s stories leaves the reader with a sense of this longing. We never get all the answers, and it’s better that way.
The first person narrators in each of the seven stories in this collection are intellectuals, who are self-aware and insightful about the people in their lives. They’re serious, yet mildly funny. These characters have rich inner lives, relaying their stories in a somewhat conversational tone, which brings to mind Deborah Eisenberg. Some of the stories, especially the lovely “Fialta,” strike a note similar to Lauren Groff at her most earnest (think “L. Debard and Aliette”). In “On the Banks of the Vistula,” the narrator dates a man with a deformed hand. “His hand,” Lee writes, “had the nimbus of an idea about it, as if the gene that had sprung this hand had a different world in mind, a better world… and people held things differently, like hooks—a world where all objects were shaped something like lanterns, and were passed on and on.” This book may well belong—like the hand and these lanterns—in a better world, but thank goodness it ended up in this one.