OCTOBER 6, 2013
REBECCA LEE CRAFTS STORIES like a Venn diagram, from large swaths of loosely related material — Midwestern college campuses, political refugees, feminism, infidelity — that cohere at unexpected points of overlap. There, at the intersections of observation and insight, something strange and indefinable seems to be happening. Take “Min,” in which we encounter a professor accused of sexual harassment who “exuded longing for all things”; an American girl assigned to find a suitable wife for her Chinese friend; a Chinese delicacy that is said to bequeath the “knowledge that all desire is one day satisfied”; and the turning away of Vietnamese refugees desperate to escape persecution and build a new life in China. The locus of Lee’s stories is not in the direction from point A to B; rather, they work by accretion, layering ideas with the suggestion of quiet and mysterious connections just beneath the surface, and possibly, just beyond our grasp.
All seven stories feature earnest, curious first-person narrators (all but one is female), often students or teachers who seem to have nice things to say about everyone. Though these individuals are mild-mannered in their daily lives, often taking a backseat to some other more obviously luminous character, their inner experiences are passionate, full of lofty and elegant observation. In one story, a flock of birds inspires this description: “They looked like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies — shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world.” In another, a jelly Danish leads to this musing: “It represented the whole world outside our sterile, deadlocked conference room, the ongoing life of midtown even deep into the middle of the night, its letting on to the East River, which flows south to downtown, where everyone is always free.”
Much of Lee’s narrative strategy can be read in the advice of a kooky professor of child psychology in the story “Slatand”: “For every situation,” he says, “there is a proper distance. Growing up is just a matter of gaining perspective. Sometimes you just need to jump up for a moment, a foot above earth. And sometimes you need to jump very far.”
This “gaining perspective” — the ability to see beyond one’s egoistic desires and the exigencies of the present — is not only the calling card of Lee’s characters (all of whom are graced with a clear-eyed and imperturbable calm), it is the mechanism by which Lee’s broad-stroked stories achieve synthesis: the view from above shows all things to be small and fragile, all people no more or less important than their fellows. Seen from up high, personal dramas lose the significance and urgency that on ground level felt so overwhelming.
Lee’s stories, then, aren’t resolved so much as they even out, like an argument that loses steam after both parties forget what started it. In “The Banks of the Vistula,” a student plagiarizes a paper, a teacher reveals a dark and painful past, and yet neither of these incidents yield any hard consequences. Lee’s interest is neither in punishing the student nor exposing the teacher; instead, she considers whether the student’s plagiarism provides catharsis for the teacher’s troubled past, whether the teacher is a source of mystery and inspiration for the student.
Still, the best story in the collection, the title story, is the one with the greatest narrative punch. The setting is a dinner party. Our narrator, the hostess — kind, intelligent and generous with her insights — has an impressive knowledge of her guests. She reveals that beneath their smiles and chit-chat, most are concealing some private drama: one is having an affair with a co-worker; another struggles through the turmoil of early motherhood; there is perhaps “too intimate a connection” between the narrator’s husband and his editor; a one-armed woman named Susan may or may not have been attacked by a bobcat, as she claims in her memoir.
The narrator’s laudable hosting skills (“You want the hostess to be serene, the apartment a set of glowing rooms awaiting you”) work the same magic on the reader as on her guests; the story settles in snugly and conjures a place you don’t mind staying a while. Then the ending arrives — a powerful jolt. For all the things our narrator knew or thought she knew, here is the one thing she didn’t, and it has the power to upend her life.
The bobcat of the title haunts the story like a shape-shifter; on rereading, you can spot it prowling through the narrator’s digressions, unbeknownst to her, representing the thing in life that is not known and cannot be known. When she gets up the nerve to ask Susan if it is a real bobcat she described in her book or a metaphorical one, Susan replies that it is both, then clarifies: “I picture it as the fright of your life.”
By the end, our narrator, having by this time encountered the fright of her life, admits to understanding Susan’s book better, “because nothing could describe what was happening.” In the face of those things we don’t understand, the ones that lurk at the edges of our lives before revealing themselves, like Susan’s bobcat “stalking her through the foothills,” we grope for any explanation, any rationale, and make up reasons where there are none. Whether they are true or become true in time amounts to the same thing.
For all the combustible material these stories contain, they rarely combust. Instead, they buzz and vibrate at a steady frequency, less like linear tales spun from causes and effects than a pulsing, often stunning, arrangement of lives and desires. Lee is keen on highlighting commonalities over differences. This focus might not make for great drama, but the gentle and leveling portrait of human nature that emerges — all of us equally humble before life’s vast, cosmic unknowability — achieves a resolution of another order, and perhaps a higher one.