Book review: ‘Bobcat’ tells stories of smart women caught up in bizarre moments

CorrespondentJune 29, 2013 

  • Fiction Bobcat and Other Stories Rebecca Lee

    Algonquin Books, 256 pages

“Bobcat and Other Stories” is a collection of quirky, almost otherworldly tales of ordinary people’s extraordinary hijinks by author and UNC-Wilmington professor Rebecca Lee, who offers a small tribute to the Cape Fear region in the final story.

The collection, however, offers a world tour beginning in Manhattan and traveling west to Minnesota, north to Canada and across the globe to Hong Kong. The female protagonists of the stories, which all stand alone without any of the shared characters or settings that sometimes inhabit short-story collections, are smart and inquisitive but somehow swept up in a current of activity that they aren’t always in control of.

It starts with a New York dinner party populated with Woody Allen-type characters, including a host and hostess whose fragile marriage painfully complements their guests’ own troubles, with infidelity, child-rearing, work and identity. Gossip and witty banter tangle and culminate in one guest’s tall-but-earnest tale of being mauled by a bobcat in Nepal – metaphor alert! – and the matter-of-fact denouement that gently but cruelly re-enacts the attack.

The author then transports us to the stark, less energetic environment of a Midwestern liberal-arts college in “The Banks of the Vistula,” where a young student plagiarizes an essay from a dusty volume of Soviet propaganda for a linguistics class taught by a native of Poland.

Their mutual recognition of the act of plagiarism doesn’t yield the usual punishment. Ghosts from the professor’s past dance between the lines during his lectures, a struggle between loyalty to Poland and obedience to Stalin. When he invites the plagiarist to present her paper at a symposium, it isn’t clear whether his purpose is to humiliate her or to redeem himself.

In “Slatland,” a deeply depressed woman struggles with the possibility that her Romanian-refugee fiancé has a wife and children in his homeland. He yields details of his past life one detail at a time, including the existence of a beloved sister “because it is not wise to speak aloud the one thing you want more than anything,” he tells her. Gravity juxtaposes with the singsong observations of the therapist who translates the packet of letters that holds the answers to her anguished questions.

“Min” offers a humorous intermission: A student becomes friends with a magnetic young man who invites her to spend the summer with him in Hong Kong. She arrives to find that her summer job, against a backdrop of late-1980s political unrest, is to interview women and choose a suitable wife for him.

Writers, students and professors dot all the stories, from the child psych professor whose peculiar therapeutic technique follows the narrator for decades in “Slatland” to the struggling TV writer whose troubles are framed against major news events of the late 1990s and early 2000s in “Settlers.”

Reading stories about writers – and about academics, when a writer also a teacher – is problematic for the close (and nosy) reader. It’s too easy to imagine the author scrawling down notes for a story following a classroom lecture or office meeting.

Recurring themes, characters and locations spark the kinds of questions that are probably most annoying to authors: Who’s this character based on? How autobiographical is that story? Some writers address this issue head-on. Others keep us wondering.

Like the titular animal, the characters in “Bobcat” aren’t entirely domesticated. They act and react in ways that are largely natural and sympathetic, but bizarre moments thrust them into a new dimension that’s both lively and anxiety-inducing. It’s these off-kilter moments that keep us engaged.

Michelle Moriarity Witt is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

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