Stories enchant with lovely words

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 16, 2013

“Bobcat and Other Stories,” by Rebecca Lee. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2013. 212 pp. $14.95.

It could be the college campus settings that I liked; or the ideas floating in the heads of the creative and compelling characters. But there’s no shortage of things to like in Rebecca Lee’s “Bobcat and Other Stories.”
Lee has a lovely way with words, expressing ordinary things in out-of-the-ordinary ways, describing settings and situations with an artist’s eye. It’s interesting that she writes about how inadequate words are when she seems so facile:
“This is the whole problem with words,” says the unamed narrator of “Fialta.” “There is so little surface area to reveal whom you might be underneath, how expansive and warm, how casual, how easygoing, how cool, and so it all comes out a little pathetic and awkward and choked.”
I imagine Lee truly believes this, and that her words are not enough to show all that she means and has in her head.
Irish author Colum McCann has this gift of words, so that his books are more than stories. McCann could write about anything, and his language would make the reading worthwhile. Lee shows the same kind of promise. In “Min,” if you don’t identify with a college student spending the summer in Hong Kong helping her best friend‘s father pick a wife for his son, it doesn’t really matter, because Lee puts you there with the simplest constructs, creating many complex meanings.
Something as ordinary as landing at the Hong Kong airport tells a vivid story: “I was sure we would tear off the tips of the buildings as we descended straight into the heart of Hong Kong. Landing was intensely exotic, like swiftly entering a jewel, a ruby.” Lee has just described the narrator’s summer there — exotic, swift, involving the myriad feelings of the heart.
The story “Slatland” has the appeal of a children’s tale, with a comforting image from a strange source. Margit, the narrator, remembers seeing a child psychology professor when her parents notice her deep sadness. The professor is an odd man with a strange tic that Margit times as she talks to him, watching it break “on his face, from the outer corner of his left eye all the way down to his neck.”
His advice is this: “I suggest you try it, Margit. For every situation, 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 the earth. and sometimes you need to jump very far. It is as if there are thin slats, footholds, from here to the sun, Margit, for the baby faces to step on. Do you understand?”
Margit does — and that climbing helps her see a perspective she has refused to consider, until she sees the professor again.
If you read a short story collection expecting clean resolutions every few pages, you will have to use your imagination here. Kirkus Reviews described it as “defiance of resolution,” an entirely apt phrase. Lee certainly suggests the future, or lets her characters dream the future — but there’s nothing spelled out. Instead, the spell of her storytelling is sufficient.
Most of these stories appeared in literary magazines in the 1990s. Lee earned an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1992 and teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington — which explains why many of the characters are young women, and several stories involve a college campus or a setting involving study. The people may be young, but many have old souls, souls comfortable in exploring.
Dinner parties bookend the collection. The first, “Bobcat” is a realization of how inconsistent love is, and the last, “Settlers,” about how we accept what comes along and call it life. In fact, that’s a theme repeated throughout these stories. Life can have grand purposes and deep meaning, but most of us only have brief moments of intensity — otherwise, we would burn to dust.
Lee’s stories are not without flaws, yet they carry the reader along with bits of insight and intriguing situations, much like life. Following this author’s path should be an interesting journey.
Lee has earned positive reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and will be at Literary Bookpost on Friday, June 21, 5:30-8:30 p.m., to read and sign her book during Friday Arts Night Out.

Deirdre Parker Smith is editor of the book page.