Bobcat and Other Stories
My brother likes to say that academia is the family business. My dad is a professor, my mom is a professor, my stepfather is a professor, my uncle is a professor, my grandfather was a professor. You get the point. I, of course, am not a professor, but it’s in the blood (lying in wait?).
Bobcat and Other Stories has gotten some good press, and some of the blurbs I read about it noted that there was an academic undercurrent to the collection, so I was intrigued. Author Rebecca Lee is a professor of creative writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington, and college life (from the faculty perspective here, from the student prospective there) is present in most of her stories.
Despite the fact that the stories are often set on campuses and the characters are professors and students, the take-away of this book for me was not that she writes about academia. Instead, the driving force of her stories is a pretty intense feeling of malaise. Her characters, vividly drawn for such short works, are largely very unhappy, dissatisfied people. When a dinner party guest in “Bobcat” (the first story in the collection) says to the group, “I just didn’t want any of it [. . .] I mean, what is marriage? What is it?” the hostess-narrator’s reaction is illustrative of this: “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.” (pp. 11-12) Yipes.
There’s no question that Lee is smart, and I like that. But, good Lord, I hope writing is an effective outlet for her to deal with her shit. Let’s just say that her stories are, generally speaking, not uplifting.
I have devised a rule for downer books: if a book is depressing, then in order for me to love it, it has to be written beautifully. I call this the Revolutionary Road Rule (Revolutionary Road is one of the saddest—but also one of the most exquisitely written—books I have ever read. It is one of my all-time faves). A couple of the stories in this book (“Bobcat” is one) come close to meeting the requirements of the Revolutionary Road Rule. There are moments when Lee’s turns of phrase are sophisticated and clever and touching. And that makes the sheer weight of the discomfort engendered by her characters a bit easier to bear. But, overall, the book falls short of the standard set by Revolutionary Road.
Rating: As a collection, I would give it a 3.5/5. 😨
The book contains seven unconnected stories. With a collection of stories, you’re bound to like some more than others. I rank them (from best to worst) as follows:
- “Min”: a story about best friends Sarah and Min, who meet at college and travel to Hong Kong after they graduate to work for Min’s father. Sarah’s job? To find Min a wife. Sarah uses Min’s grandmother’s intuitive, lovely notes (from when she chose Min’s father’s wife) as a guide. Rating: 4.5/5
- “Bobcat”: the tale of an unfortunate dinner party and its unfortunate guests. Rating: 4/5
- “Slatland”: a depressed kid is taught a weird coping mechanism that she continues to use as a depressed adult. Rating: 3.5/5
- “Fialta”: A guy (this took a couple pages to figure out, because all of her other stories are narrated by women and there weren’t great context clues) has an apprenticeship with an architect and falls in love with a fellow apprentice, but fraternization is forbidden. Rating: 3.5/5
- “The Banks of the Vistula”: A college kid plagiarizes a paper with Soviet propaganda that strikes a chord with her professor. Rating: 3.5/5
- “Settlers”: More depressing dinner party antics. It’s very short and is the last story in the book. It’s a swift kick in the gut to send you on your way. Rating: 3/5
- “World Party”: a woman on the Faculty Hearings Committee decides whether a fellow professor should be allowed to continue to supervise a student organization whose members have gone on hunger strike. Rating: 3/5
Who should read it: happy people with thick skin (this isn’t a collection to read if you’re already on the edge . . .).
If you’re in the mood for some really good short fiction that isn’t nearly as depressing as this collection, read: Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler or The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.