The Believer Book Award

The Ninth Annual—Hereby Presented To

Bobcat by Rebecca Lee

Try describing life to a fetus dying inside you, as the protagonist of Bobcat’s final chapter does, and your tale soon becomes more of an appraisal of life outside the womb. “There’s a lot that’s lousy,” she comforts it as its heartbeat brakes to “once a minute, like one of those sea creatures that live at the floor of the ocean.” After all, what could a fetus really imagine without any experience? So, at the crest of Rebecca Lee’s short-story collection, when her voice has maximum gravitational force, she explores how fiction may be unsuited to certain important projects—how it can be totally useless, even.

Throughout Bobcat, Lee’s terrific micromanagement of the business of the short story ensures that she can focus on big ideas. As well as being fantastical, her writing feels somehow pragmatic, like damage control. Her blazing wit torches through a spectrum of peripherally disturbing topics: a fraudulent but effective child psychiatrist who refers to himself as “little Roland from New Orleans, the little erky-terk,” for instance. She demonstrates other reasons for writing fiction: as an alibi, a decoy, or a dinner-party brag. And anyway, the stories (all written in the first person) counsel against believing too strongly in any one brand of genius, as brilliance can be both totalitarian and fragile, whether it comes in the shape of a former army linguistics professor, an architect, or a mock spiritual educator such as Bryan, whose wedding vow is “I will be your teacher, and you will be my team.” Lee seems sure that learning is usually an accident of life, something that happens when we pretentiously try on roles (“We are all Salman [Rushdie] now”).

Each of Lee’s stories is a pit with unknown depths. The stories unfold in a place where privilege and emergency are riskily close—like, in “Bobcat,” the human and animal meat at a dinner party attended by a descendant of the Donner clan. Lee punctuates her carefully crafted stories with humor, which darkly reminds us that we are all clueless individuals trying to pull a fast one on our inevitable mortality. The stories cling like crazy and resurface in leitmotifs and whiffs. Somehow, it feels like they’ve gotten away with murder.

An Excerpt from Bobcat

Kitty Donner came in first, looking pretty in her pale, reserved way. I was ashamed that immediately I compared her to the paralegal, whose looks were almost insanely good. Certainly this was another problem—though secondary—with your husband having an affair like this; everyone would constantly be comparing you to this other woman. Kitty was actually a formidable and special person—she was intelligent and watchful, she had a real empathy about her that made her connect quietly but nearly instantly with other people; you could trust her to take your side. At the office, sitting in our sterile conference room where we daily and nightly worked out Duong Tran’s fate, I generally thought of Ray in a somewhat holistic way, as a brilliant legal strategist and funny colleague—a crowd-pleaser, really—an essentially good-hearted man with an unfortunate personal problem on his hands, but now, tonight, walking behind his wife in her strange, boxy, black-and-red kimono dress down our tiny entrance hallway, it became clear that he was simply a cheater; it was just basic and stupid. What felt to him to be a genuine and essential stirring, a deep response to beauty, was really just life having its way with him. If one of the things people do is establish a civilization out of nature, a way out of the chaos, then Ray was failing at being a person, falling back in to the glut of the physical world. He’d been fooled by life. It had triumphed over him. I wanted to call it out to him, over his wife’s head, Hey Ray, life has triumphed over you.

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