Rebecca Lee’s “Bobcat” is the first story in her short story collection Bobcat (2013), which is a finalist for this year’s The Story Prize. “Bobcat” was originally published as a chapbook with Madras Press in 2010.
This story and I started off on the wrong foot. It begins with the narrator preparing a meal with her husband. They are making a terrine for a dinner party they are throwing that evening for seemingly random “friends.”
First, I was wary because, while I like food and I like literature that discusses food, I’m tired of hipster foodyism in stories; it smells of inauthenticity and showmanship, not for the characters involved but for the author. Mine de déjeuner casserole, trifle with anise, raspberry, port, and gingerbread, fig sauce, a roast injected with an “infusion of rosemary, palm and olive oils, and a nutty oil made from macadamias,” etc. I was worried.
The second thing that worried me was the dinner party scenario because it also smelled of inauthenticity. The narrator is a lawyer, and she has invited her colleague and his wife. The husband is an author, and he’s invited his editor, who has invited the author of a memoir outlining a bobcat attack in Africa. Also along for the show is the narrator’s friend Lizbet, the friend, also an author, who introduced her to her husband.
I was getting flashbacks of another Canadian short story collection: This Cake Is for the Party (my thoughts here). I’m afraid that I can’t say, at this point, that my worries were unfounded. I found this story — a story about violence and marriage — to be overt, almost preachy.
Even if the other foods don’t play a significant role in the story, the terrine does. The narrator is pregnant, and she feels sick as she reads her husband the violent instructions for making the terrine:
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: devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables.
The terrine is called “the perfect melding of disparate entities,” and the violence used to create it fits — clearly, it’s pointed out to us — the rest of the story.
Violence is overtly pointed out to us throughout the evening. The other lawyer is married to Kitty Donner, a descendant of those famous Donners. When the husband begins to cut the roast, Kitty turns to her husband:
“Meet, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat,” she said, many more times than seemed amusing or rational.
The narrator takes this as a sign that Kitty knows her husband is having an affair with the paralegal.
And then we have the memoirist, Susan, the one who lost a limb to a bobcat. She loves recounting the story, hitting especially the whole reason she’d left comfort behind and put herself in the position to be mauled by a cat:
“I was reading Joseph Campbell, the Sufis, Margaret Mead, and I started thinking, where is my ecstasy? I mean, where is it? Where is ecstasy, where is bliss, or even just fulfillment? Where is it?” She was looking intently at each of us. But we were in the first minutes of meeting her, and I felt unprepared to be plunged into life’s deepest questions.
“I just didn’t want any of it,” Susan said. “I mean, what is marriage? What is it?”
We also get Salman Rushdie and his memoir about the fatwa. The narrator represents a man who refused to medicate his wife, calling the medicine’s Western voodoo, and now he’s on trial because his wife died.
This is — almost admirably — the terrine, the meat emulsified into a paste, holding together the coarser elements. It comes to a premise presented as an epiphany:
But the dream of a happy family can be so overpowering that people will often put up with a lot to approximate it.