REVIEW: Seven page-turner masterpieces
Rebecca Lee will read and sign copies of her short story collection “Bobcat” at 7 p.m. June 18 at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
“Bobcat and other Stories”
By Rebecca Lee (Algonquin Paperbacks, $14.95)
On its surface, “The Banks of the Vistula,” one of seven stories in Rebecca Lee’s new collection “Bobcat and other Stories,” is about a thoughtless act of plagiarism. Margaret, the story’s narrator, pulls almost verbatim the ideas from a 1945 article about propaganda for an assignment in introductory linguistics. Her professor, Stasselova, suspicious at first of the source for the paper, eventually picks Margaret to be the keynote speaker and to deliver the paper at a symposium.
Within this framework, Lee has crafted a story that also examines political and moral compromise, and the ends to which language can be used to justify or obscure those compromises. Stasselova is a Polish expatriate who joined with the Russian Army when the Soviet Union annexed Poland after World War II. A student named Hans challenges the professor about his past (referring to him as a “Soviet puppet”), but Stasselova replies, “I believed, as did my comrades, that more could be done through the system, within the support of the system, than without.”
The narrator tells us how the professor in one of his lectures, “had taken great pains to explain to us that language did not describe events, it handled them, as a hand handles an object, and that in this way language made the world happen under its supervision.” Stasselova eventually gives up seeking a confession from Margaret, because “I was more valuable if I contained these ideas. … He had found somebody he might oppose and in this way absolve himself.”
“The Banks of the Vistula” illustrates the depth of Lee’s skills with language and her talent as a storyteller. Lee, who teaches creative writing at UNC Wilmington, previously published the novel “The City Is a Rising Tide.” Many of the stories in “Bobcat” are set in the academic world, and involve narrators who are students or professors. They also are about the complexity of human relationships, so despite what some may find a staid setting, these are seven page-turner masterpieces.
The title story “Bobcat” is set in the rarefied world of writers, lawyers and publishers. It is a story about relationships being glued together under bad circumstances, and relationships dissolving. The narrator is a lawyer defending a Hmong immigrant who is charged with murder for refusing to give his wife Western medications. She and her writer husband, John, are holding a dinner party. Among the guests are her law partner Ray and his wife, Kitty (who drops subtle hints that she knows Ray is having an affair), her husband’s publisher Frances, and Susan, author of a best-selling memoir about an encounter with a bobcat.
Once again, the deeper meanings and uses of language are important to the story. The narrator asks Susan if the bobcat was actual or metaphorical. The writer says both are valid because the bobcat represents “the fright of your life,” something that will soon be revealed about the narrator’s marriage.
Pick up Rebecca Lee’s collection. You might find someone you know in its pages.