The Heart Is An Unknown Country: 'Bobcat and Other Stories' by Rebecca Lee
This collection of short stories is a sharp, seductive venture into the foibles of marriage, infidelity and friendship among today's 30- and 40-somethings, with echoes of Updike, Freudenberger and Noah Baumbach.
Bobcat and Other StoriesPublisher: Algonquin
Length: 209 pages
Author: Rebecca Lee
Publication date: 2013-06
Bobcat and Other Stories opens with a haunting epigraph from a poem by John Ashbery, “At North Farm”:
Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzzards and desert heat, across torrents….
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?
This first stanza of Ashbery’s poem sets the tone for Rebecca Lee’s seven short stories—one of erotic confusion and hushed frenzy. Shades of sexual attraction, romantic love, and enduring friendship are laid out in these richly layered stories. Secrets, repressed, transgressive desires and unspoken wants are all key elements to Lee’s tales of upper middle-class academics and urban sophisticates struggling to trudge through the uncertainty of their 30s and 40s. With Bobcat, Rebecca Lee reminds one of a postmillennial John Updike, with shades of Jhumpa Lahiri and Nell Freudenberger.
Short stories are a challenging medium to master because the momentum and pace of the narrative has to soar throughout the entire span of the story. To me, it’s the literary equivalent of the Olympic pole vault. The writer has a limited amount of time to make it all count. She has to sprint and stride over the beam in terms of overcoming the reader’s boredom and lack of patience. And Lee does just that.
Lee is a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and she knows how to craft meticulous, shaded stories of unfulfilled desire and longing that leave you wanting more. Like a master conductor, she guides a narrative to build up your emotional involvement in her characters.
The first story in the series, “Bobcat”, begins at a dinner party of an urbane couple in New York City, a little like the opening to Woody Allen’s underrated Melinda and Melinda. He’s an up-and-coming novelist and she’s a lawyer.
Lee chooses to make this the title story for specific reasons. Structurally, it’s the most complex and nuanced of the seven. The progression of the dinner party, from the arrival of the guests to the first and second courses and the dessert, is almost operatic in its sense of tension and narrative sweep. The story is about infidelity, deception, and coming to terms with lies. One of the dinner party guests had her arm torn off by a bobcat in the Himalayas when she was mountain-climbing in Nepal. The narrator is skeptical, but eventually she comes to realize that the bobcat is something much more than a mere physical creature. Lee’s bobcat is like Hemingway’s leopard in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—otherworldly, lethal, seductive, and symbolic.
The other stories, “The Banks of the Vistula”, “Slatland”, “Min” and “World Party” are tantalizing glimpses into the erotic discontent and wistfulness of academic life. They’re set on university campuses and involve a psychological tussle between student and professor, or students with their other classmates. Some, the first three in particular, involve a cross-cultural encounter of some kind—a lover from a Third World country, a Polish professor recovering from the stifling policies of a Soviet regime, and a white American women trying to understand the process of arranged marriages in Hong Kong. The sense of dislocation, yearning, and the awareness of a cultural and social gulf between people pervades throughout these stories.
“Fialta” and “Settlers” the last two in the collection, are perhaps the weakest. They slacken in pace and ramble in comparison to the tautness of the others. “Fialta” is about a group of young graduate students selected by a celebrity academic architect to join him on a commune out in Wisconsin. The cerebral rivalry and sexual tension among them surreptitiously begins to dominate their time with each other as the shadowy figure of the architect who’s summoned them is rarely seen. “Settlers” ends the collection in the way that “Bobcat” began it—with a dinner party among disaffected couples. We get into the territory of Woody Allen (Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, Melinda and Melinda) and Noah Baumbach with these characters: brainy, tough, disaffected and surprisingly vulnerable in their own reluctant way.
One of the occasionally irksome qualities of Lee’s work is her unwitting solipsism when it comes to people from non-American cultures or ethnicities. The stories that focus on, or mention Asian characters, “Bobcat”, “Min”, and “Fialta”, present them as tantalizing “exotics” whether Lee realizes it or not. “Min”, which involves a young woman’s trip to Hong Kong in the late ‘80s with her Chinese friend, had episodes in it that made me cringe at times. In describing one of the main characters, Rapti, a strong-willed, charismatic Filipino woman working in Hong Kong as a nanny, Lee writes:
“I couldn’t explain the way I felt about her… Her hair, not in its usual braids, whipped around. I felt a stab of longing. I liked everything about her. When she spoke, she was funny and smart. She was strong; I had seen her throw a huge baby into the air and catch him easily… I wanted to know exactly what she was thinking.”
Towards the end, we see that Rapti is an outspoken activist for the cause of Vietnamese refugees in China, though this early passage seems a little condescending. “Fialta,” has an Indian character, an attractive heiress and aspiring architect named Indira who has long “bronze hands” and is a reluctant sexpot:
“There was a rumor floating among us that Indira was a former Miss Bombay; I couldn’t imagine this; she was so serious… Watching her now, one could see the sadness and solitude that truly beautiful women inherit.”
Are beauty pageant contestants by and large not serious? Indira comes across as a compelling character for the limited amount of time she’s there, but she’s painted in very bold and stark shades of exoticism.
A strong and enduring aspect of Lee’s writing is the startling poetic quality to her prose. Some parts are so direct and playfully confrontational that they stay with you long after you’ve finished reading the story. The dinner party menu of “Bobcat” has its own unearthly dynamism. The first course, a complicated terrine, embodies all the grace and savagery inherent in life itself:
“[Making the terrine] was like describing to somebody how to paint a Monet, how to turn the beauty of the earth into a blurry, intoxicating swirl, like something seen through the eyes of the dying… A terrine rightfully should be heated, cooled, flagellated, changed over time in the flames over time in the ever-turning world, but our guests were due to arrive within the hour.”
And later, dessert, a walloping trifle:
“I handed [my husband] the huge, chilled trifle and he carried it like a big baby into the dining room, where it was greeted with shouts of happiness.”
These keen details are part of what makes Lee’s prose so intoxicating and rich. In another story, “Min”, she describes a local Cantonese seafood soup in Hong Kong as: “looking like water, but tasting like the ocean—salty, warm, the smell of every creature in the world—eel, fish, lizard, horse, human being—had at one time passed through it”—the primordial soup of earthly desire and evolution.
Bobcat and Other Stories is Lee’s second book, her first is her 2006 novel, The City is a Rising Tide, set in China during the '70s. The stories in Bobcat, for the most part, are tantalizing and complex. My favorite was “World Party”, about a professor trying to help her young son heal from her divorce. The party of the title is a children’s costume party where the kids dress up as notable figures from history. The story has all the elements of local color, sharp dialogue, and crisp and clear detail that you’d want from a great short story, and the ending is perfect—tender, yet ambiguous enough to leave the reader satisfied, yet wistful, that the story has ended.
Lee’s Bobcat is an impressive and seductive book of short stories, easily one of the best collections all year. The stories are structured gracefully to motivate you to read the whole book and its seven stories from start to finish, which I more or less did. It’s a great read and one I’d recommend to anyone with an appetite for cerebral, sparkling prose.