Rebecca Lee, one of our most gifted and original short story writers, guides readers into a range of landscapes, both foreign and domestic, crafting stories as rich as novels. A student plagiarizes a paper and holds fast to her alibi until she finds herself complicit in the resurrection of one professor's shadowy past. A dinner party becomes the occasion for the dissolution of more than one marriage. A woman is hired to find a wife for the one true soulmate she's ever found. In all, Rebecca Lee traverses the terrain of infidelity, obligation, sacrifice, jealousy, and yet finally, optimism. Showing people at their most vulnerable, Lee creates characters so wonderfully flawed, so driven by their desire, so compelled to make sense of their human condition, that it's impossible not to feel for them when their fragile belief in romantic love, domestic bliss, or academic seclusion fails to provide them with the sort of force field they'd expected.
|Publisher:||Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill|
|Product dimensions:||5.74(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.68(d)|
About the Author
Rebecca Lee is professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the author of The City Is a Rising Tide. Her fiction has been read on NPR’s Selected Shorts, and her stories have been published in the Atlantic Monthly and Zoetrope. “Fialto,” which appears in this collection, was the winner of the National Magazine Award for fiction.
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Bobcat and OTHER STORIES
By Rebecca Lee
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2013 Rebecca Lee
All rights reserved.
* * *
It was the terrine that got to me. I felt queasy enough that I had to sit in the living room and narrate to my husband what was the brutal list of tasks that would result in a terrine: devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables. It 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. Since we were such disorganized hosts, we were doing a recipe from Food and Wine called the quick-start terrine. A terrine rightfully should be made over the course of two or three days—heated, cooled, flagellated, changed over time in the flames of the ever-turning world, but our guests were due to arrive within the hour.
Of the evening's guests, I was most worried about the Donner-Nilsons, whom my husband called the Donner-Blitzens. I had invited them about a month ago, before it had begun to dawn on me that one-half of the couple—Ray Nilson—was having an affair with a paralegal at work, a paralegal so beautiful it was hard to form any other opinions of her. I suppose Ray felt in her presence something that seemed to him so original that he had to pay attention even if he had a wife and a small baby at home.
My friend Lizbet was also coming, and I had filled her in on the situation, making her promise that she would reveal nothing at the dinner, even with her eyes. "My eyes?" she had said, innocently. Lizbet was so irrepressible that I could imagine her raising her eyebrows very slowly for Ray's wife, darting them suddenly over to Ray. Watch out!
Lizbet was the person who had introduced me to my husband, John. She and I had been children together, and then during the years I was getting a law degree at NYU, she and John had been writing students together in the state of Iowa. This fall, ten years after they'd graduated, both had novels being published. Lizbet's was about the search for the lost Gnostic Gospel texts, and the book was already, prepublication, being marketed as the thinking woman's The Da Vinci Code. My husband's book was a novel about a war correspondent getting traumatized in some made-up Middle Eastern country that sounded a lot like Iran but was named Burmar in the book.
Truthfully, I was not pleased with his book. I had just finished reading it for the first time, in galleys, and within the first forty pages, the protagonist had slept with three women, none of whom even remotely resembled me—one was an aging countess, another a midwestern farm-girl TV journalist, and then the narrator's true love was a sexy Burmarian/Iranian waif named Zita.
"Who is Zita?" I had asked him early this afternoon. I was hovering over a roast, trying to figure out how to tie it for the oven.
"She's nobody," he said. He was carrying into our apartment bags of groceries and he leaned over to kiss my cheek.
"Who is she, though?"
"She's a fictional character."
"Do you think our unborn child will one day want to read about your sexual fantasies of other women in war zones?"
"Wait," he said. His head was cocked to the side, as it was when he felt confused or hurt and wanted to explain something. He looked innocent, yet interested. "First," he said, "there is no Zita. Secondly, the protagonist in the book is not me."
"Zita is Frances," I said. It was absurd, I knew. Frances was Frances Sofitel, his book editor, who was also due to show up at our house in a few hours for this dinner party, a woman as unlike a waif as humanly possible. She was tall and very angular, and spoke with an authoritative baritone, and seemed always properly amused by all the underlings around her. As well, she actually managed to make quite a bit of money as an editor, partly by digging in the muck a little, a celebrity bio here, a porn star's memoir there, just a little bit on the side to allow her to publish what she considered her heart and soul, books like my husband's literary thriller and paean to women who weren't his wife.
She and my husband had what I thought was an overly intimate connection. I didn't really like to see them together. They actually talked about language itself a lot. Just words and puns and little synonyms and such. This was completely dull to me, which in addition to my jealousy was a terrible combination. For instance, we would all be out to dinner, and one of them would dig out a little piece of paper so they could play an acrostic, or dream a little about sentences that were the same backwards as forwards. For my husband, words were fascinating—their origins and mutations, their ability to combine intricately. When somebody would say something in an economical way, and use grammar originally to some satisfying end, he would usually repeat it to me at the end of the day. It stayed in his mind, like a song or a painting he loved. I did feel he would be a very good father, partially for this reason, as I could already picture him crouched over the baby, listening, rapt, waiting for the words to come in.
"Zita is not Frances, nor is she any woman," he said. "It's fiction."
"You spend all your time writing, so we'd have to say that those women take up the lion's share of your time—they are your significant others."
"Well, then, we'd have to say that Duong Tran is your significant other," John said. Duong Tran was a Hmong immigrant who had refused to give his dying wife treatment for her heart condition on account of the medication being, according to Duong, Western voodoo and not ordained by the many gods who'd traveled alongside them from Laos to New York City in July of 2001. I was his lawyer.
The argument devolved from there. Certain themes got repeated—John's intense solitude, my long hours, his initial resistance to commitment, my later resistance to marriage, and then at some point the reasons were left behind and we were in that state of pure, extrarational opposition.
Our argument was both constrained and exacerbated by the fact that I was pregnant and had read that high levels of cortisol in a troubled mother can cross the placenta and not only stress out the baby in utero but for the rest of its life. As well, there was a deadline; our dinner party was set to begin. People were soon going to be out in the streets and on the subway, making their way to our apartment. They wouldn't want to picture their hostess like this—emotional, insecure, lashing out at her husband. You want the hostess to be serene, the apartment a set of glowing rooms awaiting you, quiet music pouring out of its walls, the food making its way through various complex stages in the kitchen—the slow broiling fig sauce, the buns in the warming oven, the pudding forming its subtle skin in the chill of the refrigerator.
Lizbet arrived early. She helped me hoist myself up from the couch and then stood in the bathroom with me while I put on my makeup. Lizbet was a very spiritual person whose gifts of the spirit—patience, warmth, wonder—were quite available to her friends. Though her novel was about the Gnostic Gospels, her personal life was governed by the slightly spooky, semi-Christian ideas in the book A Course in Miracles, which was written by two Columbia psychology professors in 1976, both of whom believed that they were channeling the voice of Jesus, though a Jesus inflected with a kind of cool, Buddhist gravitas.
Lizbet had brought a huge trifle for dessert, and it stood gleaming on the kitchen counter in an enormous glass bowl. Normally I didn't really like trifle—its layers of bright, childish tastes; strawberry, coconut, sugar. But Lizbet's trifle was perfect and mysterious-seeming—anise, raspberry, and port, with a gingerbread base. 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. Her novel was the same really—a collection of treasures, a pleasure-taking, a finding of everything praiseworthy and putting it into words, with one concession to the traditional plot at its heart, which was the death of an important Gnostic scholar at the hands of his former student—a radical feminist— whom he had sexually harassed in college. What could be better?
Standing in front of the mirror, it occurred to me that Lizbet and I were living out our mothers' dreams for us—mine that I finally be pregnant and Lizbet's mother's that she never be pregnant. Our mothers had met in a consciousness-raising group in late 1967, in the East Village. They had become best friends, even though Lizbet's mother was a radical feminist, even a lesbian separatist for a while, without ever working up to actually sleeping with other women, and my own mother liked feminism only as a sort of hobby, a way to chat with a big, cozy group of women eating coffee cakes. Once she told me that feminism had given her some good "tips" for dealing with husbands, such as, Don't cry; resist. My mother had moved to Boston when she was pregnant with me and set up my beautiful childhood home, ablaze with light and happiness, the seasons passing through it effortlessly—pumpkin muffins, the deep winter solstice, the return of spring, and then the whole house flung open all summer, more and more babies arriving over the years.
Lizbet lived with her mother in the Village, and as I grew older I traveled by train to see her as many weekends as I could. Their tiny apartment always seemed like a great bohemian experiment to me, a little jerry-rigged maybe, but ultimately exciting—with its hanging wicker chair and its profusion of plants, the total devotion in that home to interesting, liberating ideas. Lizbet's mother was a campus radical at NYU, a clever Andrea Dworkin–style feminist, whose mind seemed a reservoir of interesting, possibly incorrect beliefs, which nevertheless were powerful enough to transform the culture. She tried out ideas. She taught Lizbet that ideas were tools to excavate the truth, not the truth itself, which lies somewhat beyond the reach of minds, so to be in their house was like being in the middle of a never-ending, fascinating conversation at all times.
Then came Susan. She had also published a book, also with Frances as editor, about a near-fatal tussle she'd had with a bobcat while scaling a small mountain in Nepal. The memoir had been out for a year and I was ashamed that I hadn't read it yet, especially as she was coming to our apartment for dinner. Earlier in the day I had gone online and read some reviews, hoping I could fake my way through.
She appeared at our door with a big armful of flowers and some bread she had baked herself. Her left arm had been torn up by the bobcat and later amputated, so that one sleeve fell empty. She had very blond hair and was a large, athletic woman with a wide, peaceful, Swedish-type face.
Frances appeared right behind Susan, dark to Susan's light, talking and cerebral to Susan's calm and silence. Susan at first seemed more of a presence than a personality. It struck me as interesting that she'd battled with an animal because she seemed so much like a certain type of large animal herself—serene, economical, introverted, with none of the neurosis a normal person has buzzing off them at every second.
We all settled into the living room. Lizbet immediately turned to Susan and told her how much she admired her memoir. And then she asked her what took her to Nepal and her fateful encounter with the bobcat.
"Well," Susan said. She settled deeply into our couch: it surrounded her cozily. "It was a strange time in my life. I was engaged to be married and I realized, quite suddenly, that I didn't want any of it. I didn't want to plan a wedding shower, I didn't want to buy a house together, I didn't want to join my bank account with his. I was reading Joseph Campbell, the Sufis, Margaret Mead, and I started thinking, where is my ecstasy? I mean, where is it? Where is ecstasy, where is bliss, or even just fulfillment? Where is it?" She was looking intently at each of us. But we were in the first minutes of meeting her, and I felt unprepared to be plunged into life's deepest questions.
"I just didn't want any of it," Susan said. "I mean, what is marriage? What is it?"
Frances startled and reached into her purse to pull out her trembling cell phone. She peered into its tiny screen and then she darted up from the table and out to the balcony to answer.
Meanwhile, Susan looked carefully into each of our faces. She was actually waiting for us to answer, to give reasons why people fall in love and get married.
Nobody knows, I wanted to say. Nobody really knows. But that doesn't mean you're allowed to not do it.
Ding-dong. I took a deep breath. The Donner-Nilsons were here. Kitty Donner came in first, looking pretty in her pale, reserved way. I was ashamed that immediately I compared her to the paralegal, whose looks were almost insanely good. Certainly this was another problem—though secondary—with your husband having an affair like this; everybody would constantly be comparing you to this other woman. Kitty was actually a formidable and special person—she was intelligent and watchful, she had a real empathy about her that made her connect quietly but nearly instantly with people; you could trust her to take your side. At the office, sitting in our sterile conference room where we daily and nightly worked out Duong Tran's fate, I generally thought of Ray in a somewhat holistic way, as a brilliant legal strategist and funny colleague—a crowd-pleaser, really—an essentially good-hearted man with an unfortunate personal problem on his hands, but now, tonight, walking behind his wife in her strange, boxy, black-and-red kimono dress down our tiny entrance hallway, it became clear that he was simply a cheater; it was just basic and stupid. What felt to him to be a genuine and essential stirring, a deep response to beauty, was really just life having its way with him. If one of the things people do is establish a civilization out of nature, a way out of the chaos, then Ray was failing at being a person, falling back into the glut of the physical world. He'd been fooled by life. It had triumphed over him. I wanted to call it out to him, over his wife's head, Hey Ray, life has triumphed over you.
I was interpreting each of Kitty's movements through the lens of what a woman does who perhaps senses but doesn't yet know her husband is having an affair. But she was a tentative woman anyway, so it was hard to say what she knew or didn't know. I had always found her sort of moving, actually, as it was possible to see her perpetually struggling to move past her hesitation. She sat down a little awkwardly since her kimono dress came open both at the neck and at the legs, but while she was rearranging herself, she looked at me and also put her hand on her stomach. "Oh I forgot about your baby," she said. "It's wonderful; there's so much in store for you."
John came in from the kitchen with the terrine, which looked, perhaps, not great. A terrine really does need to be great to be not awful—it is meant to evince a perfect melding of disparate entities—the lion lying with the lamb, the sea greeting the land, and so forth. John placed it on the coffee table and looked at me worriedly. I saw a flicker of alarm cross Kitty's face. Once John and I had been at a dinner party in Manhattan and the hostess had served us an opening dish of fox meat, so I knew how Kitty felt. (Later that night John had quoted the beautiful Jane Kenyon poem as we drove home along the FDR—Let the fox go back to its sandy den. Let the wind die down. Let the shed go black inside.)
Excerpted from Bobcat and OTHER STORIES by Rebecca Lee. Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Lee. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
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Table of Contents
The Banks of the Vistula.................... 31
World Party.................... 131
What People are Saying About This
"Bobcat and Other Stories is nothing short of brilliant. Rebecca Lee writes with the unflinching, cumulatively devastating precision of Chekhov and Munro, peeling back layer after layer of illusion until we're left with the truth of ourselves . . . This extraordinary story collection is sure to confirm its author as one of the best writers of her generation."—Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
"Rebecca Lee's unforgettable debut story collection, Bobcat, manages to be both heartwarming and heartbreaking, not to mention witty and wise. I was so thoroughly immersed in these universes, so glad to meet her characters, these inquisitive, open-hearted citizens of the world that I did not want the book to end."—Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins
"So alive to itself that it made my skin buzz . . . Lee's [stories] roam and dart like wild things and yet somehow wind up exactly where they intended to go. They are ardent, wayward, vigilant, heartbreaking, and, amidst all the trouble they explore, mysteriously funny." —Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination
"Alternately poignant, searingly intelligent, and laugh-out-loud funny, the stories in Rebecca Lee's Bobcat will have you torn between two impulses: the impulse to reread an exquisite sentence again and again, in order to appreciate its clear, sharp prose and surprising imagery, and the impulse to race ahead, eager to find out what happens next." —Johanna Skibsrud, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of The Sentimentalists
A Conversation with Rebecca Lee, Author of Bobcat & Other Stories
Many writers these days are turning to short shorts, or taking the short story to a whole new abbreviated form. But I believe you once called yourself a maximalist, which I think is a perfect way to think about how your stories are expansive and happen on a large canvas both emotionally and physically. Didn't Michael Curtis, your editor at The Atlantic, once say that he suspected you were secretly writing little novels? So, can you talk about the shape and size of your stories and why writing in this form attracts you?
I'm very drawn to the long short storyAlice Munro ("The Bear Went Up the Mountain"), Andre Dubus ("A Father's Story"), Peter Taylor ("The Old Forest"). I like those big, stable, near-novels, where the writer seems to be trying to pour everything they care about into the story while not losing the story itself. I heard Richard Ford give a reading once in Soho, on a summer night, and he said that the reader wants the writer to tell a story and the writer wants to delay the story a little in order to smuggle in all their concerns, all the things they care about. I always like to think of that tension in a story, between moving ahead and pausing a while.
Each of these stories feels so fully fleshed out that I can't help wondering how long it took you to write them.
That's a fun question. The fastest, I guess, took about a year, and the slowest took six years, which I know sounds ridiculous, especially since that particular storyBobcat takes place in a single night, at a dinner party.
But I loved thinking about that night. My own life was changing pretty fast (by my standards) during that time, and it was a source of stability for me to just sit down every morning to that same piece of writing, that same little terrine, and roast, and trifle. The ancillary reading I had to do for that story was a pleasure as well, since the story developed a few little obsessionsthe Donner party, Salman Rushdie & the fatwa, the Gnostic Gospels. This is the true pleasure of writing (and reading) for me, a narrative that places demands on me to start caring about something I didn't know I cared about.
One thing that I love about your stories is that no matter how strange a character is, you always seem to find a redeeming quality in them. In other words, you never set up any characters as completely worth our derision.
That's a really interesting observation, just about characters in general. I studied with Ethan Canin when I was a young writer starting out, and one of the things he talked about really humanely was the writer and/or reader's love of character. He told us over and over that we had to like our characters, even and especially the ones least deserving. Ethan's voice must have gotten in my head at a really impressionable time.
Also, I'm a youngest child. We're not allowed to be derisive. We have to be pretty earnest and accepting.
Can you talk about what it was like to write a story with a precise direction given to you? I'm referring to "Fialta." What were you asked to doand was it limiting, or the opposite? Artists have sometimes told me that it's freeing to have someone impose limits or frames on their work, in that they can be creative within these boundaries, and I'm wondering if that was the case when you wrote "Fialta."
In the year 2000, I got a call from Adrienne Brodeur, asking if I would like to write a story for her magazine Zoetrope, and the storyline would be provided by the movie director Frances Coppola. I had seen The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now, I had seen the documentary his wife made about the making of Apocalypse Now, with Frances (as she called him) making spaghetti and writing on a typewriter with Mahler in the background, and the pouring rain outside the window. I said yes! Obviously yes. I thought it would be like coloring inside the lines of the great man's ideas.
My assignment was to write about an authority figure who is standing in the way of young lovers. I was instructed to watch Splendor in the Grass for inspiration. But that was it. I inserted some of my interestsI was really interested in architecture at the time, and I still had a romantic attachment to spring in the Midwest though I was living in the South, I was obsessed with Angels in America and I gave the story its title after Nabokov's wonderful story, "Springtime in Fialta".
Have you ever seen a bobcat in real life? More seriously, I think the bobcat is so emblematic of the entire collection, and the way in which the bobcat motif is both very funny in the context of the story and yet, by the end, the most important moment on which the story turns.
I started writing the story Bobcat in 2004. At that time there was a real bobcat in the story, and it tore up the character's arm and she wrote a memoir about it. Then there was whole sea change in non-fiction writing. For instance, James Frey's book was discredited in 2006 as having all sorts of made-up stuff in it. And then all these great metaphors fell out of non-fiction. So gradually during all of that change in the culture, my bobcat turned out to be not true either, and he morphed into a metaphor. The memoirist in my story had invented him to stand in for everything troubling and frightening in life.
I've never seen one! Not a real one, but I've known my share of trouble.
Who have you discovered lately?
I have been reading Spillover by David Quammen, a really scary book about diseases that have (and will) spill over from animals to humans. David Quammen is brilliant and unexpectedly funny in this book.(If your husband catches an ebola virus, give him food and water and love and prayers but keep your distance, wait patiently, hope for the bestand, if he dies, don't clean him by hand. Better to step back, blow a kiss, and burn the hut.)I've been re-reading (always) Claudia Roth Pierpont's Passionate Minds; Women Rewriting the World; also A Father's Tale by Lionel Dahmer, a sad, stately, really sensitive and interesting memoir by Jeffrey Dahmer's father (I'll never forget this book actually, it's breaking my heart); another nonfiction book of deep reportage and heartbreakThe Life We Were Given, by Dana Sachs, and a novelA Town Of Empty Rooms by my good friend Karen Bender, that I can't wait to return to every day. I'm also readingvery slowly a book of philosophical essays about reading called Wonderful Investigations, by Dan Beachy-Quick, that is hurting my brain but in all the best ways.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bobcat and Other Stories is a collection of seven short stories by Canadian-born author and professor of creative writing, Rebecca Lee. In this masterpiece of contemporary fiction, Lee gives the reader a wide range of topics, settings and characters: there is enough variety to please almost every reading taste. The first story, Bobcat gathers together at a Manhattan dinner party, publishers, writers, lawyers and the victim of a bobcat attack; in it, marital infidelity, pregnancy, Salman Rushdie and cannibalism all feature. In The Banks of the Vistula, a plagiarising student finds her actions have unexpected and undesired consequences; it touches on Communism, linguistic freedom and propaganda. Slatland is a beautiful story on getting perspective and explores the expectation of happiness in life. In Min, a woman finds herself earnestly performing the task of vetting prospective brides for a good friend. World Party and Fialta both examine the influence of respected elders on the younger generation, but in vastly different ways. Settlers manages to include marriage, miscarriage, Amazons and Clinton. Lee’s characters, even in these short stories have depth and charm; her plots are original with interesting twists; her prose is often beautifully descriptive: “…I heard about a thousand birds cry, and I craned my neck to see them lighting out from the tips of the elms. They looked like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies – shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world.” and occasionally breath-taking: “She wasn’t completely drunk but calculated that she would be in about forty-five minutes. Her body was like a tract of nature that she understood perfectly – a constellation whose movement across the night sky she could predict, or a gathering storm, or maybe, more accurately, a sparkling stream of elements into which she introduced alcohol with such careful calibration that her blood flowed exactly as she desired, uphill and down, intersecting precisely, chemically, with time and fertility.” This taste of Lee’s work will stimulate readers to seek out more works by this fine author.
A great collection of stories from a masterful storyteller. A truly remarkable book.
Rebecca Lee's Bobcat and Other Stories is a very captivating collection. It is full of rich and vivid characters, smooth-flowing with excellent narratives, and it is very deep and insightful. She is an amazing writer.Bobcat and Other Stories, The Usurper: and Other Stories, A Twist in the Tale are some of the short stories I enjoyed recently.
Good set of short stories but some stories seemed to end with out finish and seemed to be missing a point but she is a wonderful story teller and created great stories if only they had a good ending
It's literary gold. So, so beautifully written. I found myself wishing each short story would suddenly appear as a novel, but they are beautiful just the way they are. Each one really captures the essence of being a human.
An amazing book of short stories. Poetic, gorgeous writing. I could not put the book down.
A very poor collection of short stories. At no point in this book was I ever engaged in the plot or characters. The stories seemed repetitive at times and the endings were just awful. The stories didn't seem to conclude the just abruptly ended, most of the time not even making any sense. I reread a couple to see if I was missing something and still couldn't make any sense of it. I hate to write a bad review but this set of short stories was very lacking. There are much better collections to be found elsewhere so I suggest skipping this one.
For short stories this is ok, but the plots are so thin you wonder why you put in the time readind all those unconnected words. And at the end of one of the stories, I was surprised it was the end because the story seemed to undeveloped. It just ended. I'd skip it and it this wasn't an E book, I'd give it to the library.
One word two syllables. BORING. Intresting but the first page didnt have me hooked at all.