Rebecca Lee shows how far she can push the boundaries of so-called civilized behavior by opening "Bobcat," her mesmerizingly strange new short-story collection, with an elaborate dinner party. The hostess and narrator has made a terrine, and even that showy culinary effort carries a whiff of violence. And it is mentioned on the first page of the title story, well before the night's serious maiming has begun.
"I felt queasy enough that I had to sit in the living room and narrate to my husband what was the brutal list of tasks that would result in a terrine," she tells the reader. She has had to "devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables." Another spooky harbinger: This woman is a New York lawyer whose latest client is responsible for the death of his wife.
Once the guests arrive, Lee ratchets up the malice. She also did that in her debut novel, "The City Is a Rising Tide," but it suits the short-story format even better. This collection is full of shivers and frissons, some surpassingly strange, like the image of unborn apples existing as liquid in the "gnarled, knotty, nearly human arms of apple trees."
The next of this book's seven highly imaginative stories could not be more different. "The Banks of the Vistula" concerns an overeager freshman at a Minnesota college who plagiarizes her first paper for a linguistics class. But her choice of source material is unfortunate: an old book that stirs up terrible memories for her elderly Polish professor. "It reads like it was written 50 years ago," he accurately tells the freshman, whose stolen words don't fool him for an instant. "It reads like Soviet propaganda."
Soviet propaganda shames and angers a man who saw Warsaw burn in 1944, witnessed both Nazi and Soviet aggression against his homeland, and was found guilty of treason by his own people.
One of Lee's disarming ways of exposing a naive girl from the Midwest to bitter World War II bloodshed is to describe the sight of forks planted in the snow by freshman boys; suddenly, this image resembles a graveyard. And the girl's lies are eventually undone. "I had to resort finally to the truth, that rinky-dink little boat in the great sea of persuasion," she says with the eccentric eloquence that makes "Bobcat" so potent and unpredictable.