One of the many differences between short stories and novels is that often I read a short story that I really like but am not quite sure why I like it. When I read a novel that I like, its very length usually provides enough development, explanation, sense of reality, and as-if-real characters to make me confident I can explain what I like about the book. Short stories, by their brevity, often seem to be elliptical, cryptic, laconic, lyrical, suggestive, and so mysteriously unreal that I might respond positively to the story, but not really be sure why.
I have been reading Rebecca Lee's collection of stories, Bobcat (shortlisted for the 2014 Story Prize) for the past couple of weeks and, although I like the stories, I am feeling pressed to explain why. It appears that several reviewers have had the same reaction. Janet Maslin in her New York Times review calls the book "mesmerizingly strange." She says the collection is "full of shivers and frissons, some surpassingly strange." Maslin seems primarily to be responding to Lee's metaphors. For example, when the plagiarist college student in "The Banks of the Vistula" decides to confess to her professor, she says in her narration, "I had to resort finally to the truth, that rinky-dink little boat in the great sea of persuasion." Maslin calls this the kind of "eccentric eloquence" that makes Lee's stories "potent and unpredictable." She refers to these metaphors as having a "mysterious beauty."
Robin Romm says in her New York Times review that she could spend the entire review pulling "beautiful lines" out of Lee's "textured and nuanced" collection, adding that the book has so many good passages that "any linguaphile could spend a great afternoon in a little spasm of dazzle." However, Romm tries to go further than expressing her admiration of Lee's language. She recognizes that many of Lee's stories do their best work deeper down, as in the way " The Banks of the Vistula" ties together its parts," noting that the plagiarized book is about language, and that the girl begins to see "profundity" everywhere, e.g. birds that "look like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies—shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins…straining against the requirements of such a physical world." The girl's former disregard for the power of words is transformed into awe, says Romm.
Romm's reaction sounds similar to mine, but she does not have the space or time in her short review to explore and explain her reaction in any detail. Since I have world enough and time and owe no allegiance to the limitations of a newspaper review space, I will make an effort to explain why I think Romm and I like the story and why we suspect that its best work is "deeper down" than mere plot, or character, or even "beautiful lines."
The first thing we notice about the first-person narrator of "Vistula" is her language, which seems self-consciously pushed, even a bit sophomoric, yet still intriguing and otherworldly. In the first sentence, she says it is dusk and the campus had "turned to velvet." Ambiguously, she says, "I walked the brick path to Humanities, which loomed there and seemed to incline toward me, as God does toward the sinner in the books of Psalms." Although we know she is talking about walking toward a building named Humanities, the notion of walking toward Humanities suggests thematic significance that we suspect the story will explore.
When she walks into her professor's office, she sees him framed in the window (the first of several such window-framed images); behind his head is the college, looking like a "rendition of thought itself, rising out of the head in intricate, heartbreaking cornices that became more abstract and complicated as they rose." The transformation of objects into thought, or looking at objects that seem to stand for thought is, like the picture framing metaphors, another repeated motif in the story.
Where did this young woman get this language? What is the time span between the actions of the story and her narration of the story? At the time of the events of the story she is only in her third week of college. We do not know the time of her telling this story, and the only events we know of in between these two periods of time are the events in this story. So, Robin Romm is I think, correct in inferring that it is the events of this story that has transformed her use of language, enabling her to tell it the way she does.
The professor, whose name is Stasselova, teaches a course entitled "Speaking in Tongues: Introductory Linguistics." The course title is a reference to sacred language, whereby one is touched by the Holy Spirit to speak in a language that is unknown to the person speaking it. And indeed, the sacred or magic nature of language seems a significant theme in the story. When the young woman leaves the professor's office, out the window she can see the edge of the sun falling down off the hill on which the campus was built. "I'd never seen the sun from this angle before, from above as it fell, as it so obviously lit up another part of the world, perhaps even flaming up the sights of Stasselova's precious, oppressed Poland, its dark contested forests and burning cities, its dream and violent borders." The image suggests another important theme in the story—the relationship or connection between separate people and separate cultures.
In class, Stasselova lectures that the reason for the sentence is to express the verb—"a change, a desire. But the verb cannot stand alone; it needs to be supported, to be realized by a body, and thus the noun—just as the soul in its trajectory through life needs to be comforted by the body." The power of the sentence, he says, is that it acts out the drama of control and subversion. "The noun always stands for what is, the status quo, and the verb for what might be, the ideal." Once again, we hear the theme of the relationship between body and spirit, between things and desire.
When the young woman burns the book to hide her plagiarism and throws it into the water, she recalls that in one of its "luminous chapters," she had read that the ability to use language and the ability to tame fire came from the "same warm, shimmering pool of genes, since in nature they did not appear one without the other." When she leaves the ravine, she hears hundreds of birds alighting from the elms. "They looked like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies—shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world." Ideas, not objects; that is, verbs, not nouns constitute what is truly human, although obviously ideas and verbs cannot exist without the support of objects and nouns. The former seems frail and must be supported by the latter; however, it is actually the latter that is meaningless without the former.
When the young woman and her roommate Solveig go to Stasselova's office, the light still lingers outside the windows "like the light in fairy tales, rich and creepy." And indeed, the story does seem to exist in a realm somehow elevated above the mere world of everyday reality—a world governed by the power of language, a world of artifice—shimmering with significance.
The theme of the connection between different people and different cultures is emphasized when in Stasselova's office, she asks if she can have some of "this" cream for her coffee. He calls to her attention her little verbal tic of drawing a line between things she considers "this" and things she considers "that—a perimeter of her sphere of intimacy—telling her he is flattered that she considers him within her sphere. Once again she looks out the window beyond his head and sees the campus as if it were an hallucination be, "like some shadow world looming back there in his unconscious."
When she and Stasselova go to pick up her roommate at a party, Stasselova walks toward her with drinks, and behind him the picture window "revealed a nearly black sky, with pretty crystalline stars around. He looked like a dream one might have in childhood."
When she reads her paper to prepare for her presentation, she realizes that "almost miraculously" she had crossed an invisible line beyond which people turn into actual readers, when they start to hear the voice of the writer as clearly as in in a conversation." She begins to realize the significance of what the propagandist author from which she has plagiarized says about language, in which the language fortifies itself, "becoming a stronghold—a fixed, unchanging system, a moral framework."
When she goes to Stasselova, she realizes that he can see in her all his failed ideals, "the ugliness of his former beliefs." He has found in her someone he might oppose and thus absolve himself. She sees behind his head the sunset in which the sun does not seem to be falling but rather receding farther and farther.
She now knows the "murderous innocence" of the book she copied from. Inside the lecture hall where she is to read her paper, the windows stretched to a full height so "that one could see the swell of earth on which Humanities was built."
When she finishes, she waits for Stasselova to confront her and reassert his innocence in opposition to her presentation, but he does not. Instead, he once again frames himself in front of the room's high windows to teach her a little lesson about the "importance of, the sweetness of," the sentence. She thinks at that moment she did long for one true sentence of her own, "to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity—the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows." The story ends with her looking out the window above Stasselova's head at the storm clouds which were dispersing, as if frightened by some impending goodwill, and I could see that the birds were out again, forming into that familiar pointy hieroglyph, as they're told to do from deep within."
It is not the foregrounded plot story, so easy to summarize, about the ethical/moral issue of a young woman plagiarizing a college paper, or even the political moral issue of the professor's betraying his home country Poland by joining the Russian army, that makes this story seem so strange and nuanced, so textured and eccentric, as Janet Maslin and Robin Romm have suggested. Nor is it merely the separate self-conscious metaphors that reviewers like to quote, as beguiling as they are. Rather what makes the story such an intriguing and engaging story is the pattern of significance created by the repeated reference to the relationship between words and things, objects and ideas, nouns and verbs—indeed how language has the power to illuminate, to unify, to expose, to create.
The young woman's increasing ability to identify with the complexity of her professor's past decisions, however misguided they might have been, and her increasing ability to transform mere events and objects into the stuff of human empathy and imagination, is made manifest by the very story she tells. And by means of the imaginative world she creates, a result of the stuff of Humanities, her professor is transformed into a radiant image of the human mind in all its simultaneous power and frailty.
One can like the story without hypothesizing this complex pattern of thematic significance created by language. However, it seems to me that making an effort to articulate this thematic complexity "makes speak" the mystery of the story's appeal.