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Bobcat and other stories
By Rebecca Lee
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Here we go. I've read a few short story collections in the past several months, most recently Ben Stroud's Byzantium and Sam Lipsyte's Fun Parts (which I reviewed here and here). Bobcat is far superior to these. It has the feel of early Lorrie Moore or Joy Williams. Which is to say, it's really, really good, surprising even. If you buy one story collection this year, this should probably be it (and I know that Tenth of December came out earlier in the year--this is better than that). The last really good story collection I read was James Lasdun's It's Beggining to Hurt from 2011. Like Lasdun's collection, Bobcat begins with a knockout. Here, it's the title story, where a group of New York intellectuals have gathered for a dinner party.
This is how Ms. Lee gets you. You find yourself in a story that you don't particularly want to be in. Like at a New York dinner party. This is not a wild, drug-fueled rooftop party full of crazy artists in the 1970's (like in the Flamethrowers earlier this year). No, here we're in an apartment. If I had to guess it would be a brownstone in Brooklyn. The characters, for the most part, are boring, egotistical, and petty. I would guess that at least one person at the party is wearing a semi-ironic patterned sweater-vest with a turtleneck. And yet, from the first page, you feel something slightly off, a darkness or a sense of chaos below the surface. Ms. Lee writes in an intelligent, knowing voice that's not at all abrasive. A disagreement the hosting couple has is described like this: "The argument devolved from there--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." When sentences are executed with that much authority and grace its easy to read a few pages before you've found your footing in a story. After the guests to the dinner party arrive, we find out that two of them have recently published books, one of which is a memoir about a woman who lost her arm to a bobcat while on a backpacking trip. "What I missed most," the memoirist says, "while I lay there, knowing my arm would most likely have to be amputated, if I didn't die right there, going in and out of consciousness, what I missed most was this, the ritual of dinner, the sitting down to sup together." Which is good, funny stuff. Not only has the woman written a memoir about her encounter with a bobcat, she's deadly serious about it. In the kitchen, the hostess says to her friend, "I don't believe there was a bobcat." And that's where Ms. Lee got me. The chaos that's been a current under the prose suddenly reaches a hand up through the surface and threatens to grab you. You could guess where the story goes from there. But the beauty of this book is that you would guess wrong. At the end of this story, Ms. Lee flawlessly pulls off what I would call the "double-switcheroo" ending, a rare feat--this author has a way with plotting, taking a story in an unexpected direction at just the right moment, and then veering even further off course.
Here's the thing. I think short stories are fine. I like coming across a new author in Harper's or the New Yorker as much as the next guy. I suppose the short story is good for modern urban life, with the public transportation and the Kindles. Maybe the form is good for the modern attention span, too. And The Tenth of December was a surprise bestseller earlier this year! (For a little bit about my opinion of George Saunders--hint, I think he's a bit overrated--see this review). Maybe the short story is due for a resurgence, but I hope it's not. In general, as a reader, I think the short story form is well suited to magazines. It may be well-suited to $1.99 Kindle "shorts" or something like that. But it usually makes for a lousy book-length reading experience. I could be nice and qualify that statement by saying it's "in my opinion," but it's not really a matter of opinion. By its very nature, a book of stories has to start five or six or seven (or seventeen) times, every time there's a new story. Naturally, a book of stories will have some weak spots, just like a novel will have some weak chapters. But a weak story is worse than a weak chapter in a novel, because you don't have an over-arching plot carrying you through. My personal experience is that every time I sit down to read a 200 page book of stories it takes me two or three times longer than it takes to read a 500 page novel. There's a simple reason for this. It's not that the prose is dense, or that I want to savor the sentences. It takes longer because I get bored. I keep putting the book down. Basically, every time I read a book with one or two really interesting interesting stories and a bunch of average ones, I wish the author would just turn one of the good stories into a novel and not waste my time with the rest of it.
Of course none of this applies if the writer at work is some kind of miracle worker. Some authors manage to bring enough surprise to every story, manage to keep the world of each story interconnected enough that it never feels like starting over when one story ends, manage to make the familiar new. For me, this list is short--Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Kevin Canty, James Lasdun, and a few other writers--but it's a list that Rebecca Lee has now joined.
Out of 10: 10