Between our monthly lists of must-reads, our listicles on varying topics, and our weekly Staff Picks, we recommend a rather large number of books here at Flavorwire. But which ones are really the best? In this feature, “Book of the Month,” your intrepid literary editor opines on the book she’s loved the most this month. For June, you must pick up Rebecca Lee’s debut collection, Bobcat and Other Stories.
The year in literature so far has been remarkably rich in the absurd, in the surreal, in the magical. As a reader with a particular taste, nay glee, for the highbrow/high-concept, I’ve devoured what must be more than my share of the fantastic (and I mean this in both senses) in recent months: Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Toby Barlow’s forthcoming Babayaga, Matt Bell’s recent In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide to Being Born, Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I loved them all, but recently, I’ve been craving realism, something grounded in the tiny trials of ordinary life — but of course, because it’s fiction, rather more interesting. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat is this exactly: a breath of fresh air, squarely realist, but possessed of some of its own strange magic, the kind of book that it feels right to call “dazzling” and “understated” in the same breath.
Indeed, there is magic here, but it has dissolved into the prose, and simmers on a sentence level. In “The Banks of the Vistula,” in which a college student plagiarizes a paper and winds up with a little more than she bargains for, Lee writes, “In one of Stasselova’s lectures he 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.” This is precisely how Lee’s own sentences feel, each of her metaphors shining true for a moment before plunging back under, the characters cupped and prodded by the witty, sure-footed prose. In the same story, as her characters leave a party, she writes, “Once outside, Stasselova took off his coat and hung it around Solveig. Underneath his coat he was wearing a dark jacket and a tie. It looked sweet and made me think that if one kept undressing him, darker and darker suits would be found underneath.”
Lee’s characters wear her language well, as they miss the signs and worry over the possibilities and plunge on ahead anyway. In the excellent “Fialta,” which unsurprisingly won Lee a National Magazine Award for Fiction, the narrator wins an apprenticeship to the famous architect Franklin Stadbakken, and joins a cohort on the eponymous grounds. When it is announced that Stadbakken disapproves of “fooling around,” he promptly falls in love with a fellow apprentice. In this story, the characters are all striving, and their yearning, both requited and otherwise, radiates from the page. In one scene, an apprentice, Indira, gets a call that her father is sick in the middle of a staging of Angels in America:
“‘Oh no!” Groovy said. And we all murmured. I looked over at Reuben. What will you do now, Reuben? What display now? What will spill out of you now? He stood so still, as the heartbroken always do, and then he went to her. He touched her wing, the safest, least intrusive part.
This emotional state is something Lee excels at, this perfectly simple evocation of want and sadness, and the book is full of such moments — a dinner party where everyone knows, or thinks they know, whose marriage is about to fall apart, a woman with a baby slowly dying within her, the various semi-bizarre trials of campus life — each one as raw and uneven as our everyday lives. But rather more interesting, of course.