Rebecca Lee’s new short story collection, Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin 2013), centers on the lives of young adults, most of whom are in college or newly embarking on marriage and careers. In prose that I often found deft and engaging, Lee explores the dreams, fantasies, and hopes of her characters. Romantic attachments and marital infidelities play a large role, usually dramatized, unsurprisingly, at dinner parties and casual social gatherings.
The title story begins the book, and its fixation on flashbacks to the college days of the characters that assemble for a meal at the narrator’s house sets up the rest of the work well. Tales intersect as the evening moves along: the bobcat attack that has cost one woman her arm, the family history of one guest who is descended from the Donner Party family. These various narratives are woven together through conversation, mostly, though the narrator reminisces and summarizes her own judgments on her companions, as in this passage, when she remembers discovering, during a late-night conference, that her law partner, who is at the dinner, is being unfaithful to his wife with a young paralegal named Lakshmi:
What the hell was Lakshmi doing here with a little Danish in a bag? I knew what that little Danish meant . . . .It was irresistible, of course, it represented the whole world outside our sterile, deadlocked conference room, the ongoing life of midtown even deep into the middle of the night. . . . As Ray conferred with Lakshmi in the hallway, I sat inside the room, waiting, growing more furious by the second. The phone rang again, and without really looking, I opened the door and thrust it out toward Ray. “It’s your wife,” I said.
The revelation of this secret seems to be where the characters are headed, but like all the stories in this collection, the action suddenly veers, and another problem, more immediate to the narrator, presents itself at the end.
The settings of Bobcat move from Canada to somewhere near Cape Fear to Hong Kong. Whether they are in Wisconsin or Saskatchewan, however, the characters in these stories all seem to be cut from the same small set of patterns. There are writers of novels, TV scripts, and memoirs. There are husbands and would-be husbands, mostly gentle, articulate, and well-read (though frequently unfaithful). There are professors galore. There are two unrelated characters in two different stories with significant facial tics. The houses are all filled with flowers and good food, and the children are, for the most part, benign and faceless.
What’s more, the characters all sound alike. The narrators are all sensitive and introspective, like their friends, lovers, and spouses. They cite or quote literary texts. The professors and fathers are all a little pompous and controlling. Whether they’re young or old, male or female, Romanian or American, however, everybody in this book sounds pretty much like everybody else. I was thirteen pages into “Fialta” before I realized that this narrator was male, because the voice sounded so much like all of the female speakers. The one outstanding exception is Professor Pine in “Slatland,” who says things like “’Slatland, flatland, mapland’ . . . . ‘Pardon me, Margit. I know so many languages that sometimes I say words out of place.’” But then he turns out to be one of the two characters with facial tics.
The words “sort of,” “actually,” and “really” also began to stand out because they are used so frequently and by so many characters. This example, from “Bobcat,” is typical: “I had always found her sort of moving, actually.” If these expressions came only from a narrator, I might assume that Lee was using them artfully. But many characters talk this way, and by the end of the book, the phrases begin to pile up into sentences like this one, from “World Party”: “he had been actually really charming.”
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these words, used to characterize a certain kind of speaker, and I don’t mean to suggest that they show up on every page. They don’t. Their frequent appearance, however, along with the other similarities of character, gave an air of repetitiveness to the stories in Bobcat, that, in the end, left me unsatisfied. The metaphors and descriptions in this book are very good, too good to be marred by carelessness or monotony, and I hope, for this reason, that the next time I pick up a volume by Rebecca Lee, it will be a novel.