Bobcat and Other Stories
(Alonquin Books, 2013)
It would be easy to categorize Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories as a collection exploring the ways in which people attempt to navigate everyday life. These seven stories all take place in the familiar terrain of a home or a college campus and orbit such topics as infidelity, obligation, spirituality, and the often-deceptive nature of appearances. But these everyday aspects are just the surface layer of Lee’s stories, a thin veil over the more unusual circumstances lurking underneath.
In “Bobcat,” a young married couple hosts a dinner party for friends. The unnamed narrator worries about the food, about appearing as the perfect host, and about the fact that her coworker’s wife doesn’t know that he is having an affair with his paralegal. “The dream of a happy family can be so overpowering that people will often put up with a lot to approximate it,” she says of their situation. “Sometimes a little blindness keeps the family together.” Lee’s prose in this story is fully loaded with meaning—even food gets stuffed with significance as each dish at the dinner party hints at some suppressed emotion the narrator is grappling with. While “the pudding form[ed] its subtle skin in the chill of the refrigerator,” the trifle’s “layers of bright, childish tastes” gleam inside its giant glass bowl. “Lizbet basically knew how to live a happy life and this was revealed in the trifle—she put in what she loved and left out what she didn’t,” says the narrator of one guest. Unfortunately, this narrator recognizes these simple truths in others while completely denying any relevance they may have for her own life. When a mysterious intruder arrives at the end of the evening, she is forced to reexamine the blind spots in her own marriage.
But not all of Lee’s characters block out the realities of their relationships. In “Slatland,” a kooky psychologist teaches a young girl how to separate herself from her problems by imagining that she is literally rising above them. This technique works flawlessly until she is faced with the infidelity of her Romanian fiancé 20 years later. “Oddly enough,” the narrator writes, “the signs indicating that a man is in love with another woman are often similar to the signs of an immigrant in a new country, his heart torn in two.” She then likens herself to the hostile government in her fiancé’s homeland, collecting and censoring letters that might upset the tranquility of her established regime. The foundation of their relationship is much more skewed than she could have ever imagined, and her insight into the power dynamics makes this realization even more heartbreaking.
Lee manages to utilize events as diverse as the Donner Party and the repatriation of the Vietnamese from China during the Thatcher Administration to shed light on the individual lives of her characters, and the narratives often end somewhere completely different—whether in content or place—from where they begin. “Min” opens in the U.S., with a college’s investigation into a professor’s inappropriate treatment of students, then Lee moves us to Hong Kong, where our Western narrator is enlisted to find a wife for a man that she herself might possibly love. “Settlers” begins with a close up on an old Victorian house near the ocean and an impending tropical storm, and then shifts, rather quickly, to the Starr Report and the unrequited attraction the narrator feels for a man that doesn’t deserve her. Though the careful crafting of each story may not be immediately apparent, one thing is certain: these stories manage to surprise, ultimately leaving the characters in a place simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.
“Fialta,” the fifth story in the collection, is the only one that stands apart. The narrator, who has been chosen as one of five apprentices to attend a retreat at a famous architect’s rural home, is told that he cannot fall in love while at Fialta, and yet he does just that. Though the voice feels similar to the other stories and many of its themes relate, “Fialta” follows the collection’s only male protagonist, a character who speaks with a sentimentality absent in her other narrators. Sentimentality is a necessary element of this story, however, as the narrator falls subject to a course of action that he knows will get him expelled; he becomes nostalgic for the time spent at Fialta, even though he hasn’t yet left. “Fialta” breaks the spell that Lee has cast over the reader by changing the terms that she had set up and carefully adhered to, thus far. And it doesn’t help that the gender of the narrator isn’t even clear until halfway through the story—a woman falling in love with another woman during this “architectural dream” might have even been more interesting.
Lee does not appear to comment on the characters in Bobcat and Other Stories, nor does she make arguments about their actions. Rather, she presents them as truthfully as possible, both fragile and steadfast with a naiveté that also serves as the root of optimism. Written with clarity, sensitivity, and even humor, her women are just as flawed as their lying counterparts and often must come to terms with the idea that a single decision—a single moment—can define the rest of one’s life. Why do they follow certain paths, choosing to fall in love or get married or pursue a relationship that’s destined to fail? “Nobody really knows,” the narrator of “Bobcat” says. “But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to not do it.”