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A collection of connection – ‘Out There’

April 13, 2022
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There’s no such thing as normal. All it takes is a little scratching at the veneer of the mundane to reveal the much stranger reality that surrounds us.

That effort to dig down into the bizarre – even when the bizarre isn’t buried all that deeply – can often result in marvelously strange stories. When weird fiction blurs those lines, giving the everyday that ever-so-slight tilt that sends it careening off into the shadows, it usually proves to be a rewarding reading experience.

And when the writer is also someone with a genuine gift for craft, well … that’s when you get something like Kate Folk’s “Out There” (Random House, $27).

This collection of 15 stories offers up precisely the sorts of funhouse reflections that you hope to find when digging into fiction that blends the literary and the speculative. Folk delves into the darkness that comes from our shared need for (and failure to find) connection. Perhaps we seek to connect with family or a lover. Perhaps we want to connect with an institution or an idea or maybe – simply – ourselves. Those quests can be bleak – particularly when they lead us down paths we aren’t prepared to traverse.

(Oh, and just for the record – all 15 of these stories are absolute bangers. Usually in these sorts of single-author story collections, you’ll find one or two that don’t resonate in quite the same way. Decidedly not the case here – “Out There” is top to bottom gold.)

“The Last Woman on Earth” is about what it says it is, a sharp and sadly funny tale of the titular Last Woman on Earth and the bleak truths that come with that status. In just a few pages, it manages to deconstruct the many flavors of male/female dynamics, with a healthy condemnation of the internet-entertainment complex. “The Void Wife” tackles the notion of what forever really means for a relationship, by way of a relentless void slowly consuming the Earth and the population’s reaction to its inescapability.

Folk’s unafraid to veer into the realm of body horror as well. Ever wonder what the notion of “inner beauty” might actually mean when pushed to its logical, literal extremes? “Heart Seeks Brain” has an answer for you. What if there was a rare disease that caused one’s bones to melt at night and resolidify every morning? Welcome to “The Bone Ward.” There’s more where they came from, too.

A few of these stories defy easy categorization in terms of genre, though their thematic underpinnings are as bold as the rest. Stories like “Tahoe” (about a bachelor party gone wrong – kind of), “The Turkey Rumble” (about a family’s bizarre holiday tradition) and “Dating a Somnambulist” (a story that is somehow both fully and not-at-all described by its title) are strange, off-kilter and uniformly excellent reads.

And framing the book, serving as its alpha and omega are the titular story – “Out There” and the closing tale, titled “Big Sur.” Imagine if the bots that flood the internet were made manifest in the physical world, actual beings that walked among us but that were still driven by the single-minded desire to consume our personal data. These stories explore that potential future – from both sides.

All those, plus a half-dozen more (including the one that might be my low-key favorite, “A Scale Model of Gull Point,” a story that I could try to describe for you, but really, you should just bask in the layered social, economic and environmental commentary accompanying one hell of a first-person narrative).

“Out There” is a rare beast, a collection of stories that manages to vary wildly while also maintaining a sense of connection. Folk’s prose gifts serve the author well here, allowing for these disparate pieces to share a stylistic voice while still maintaining enough differences to avoid bleeding together.

And again, that yearning for connection is present throughout these stories, even as the individuals contained therein express and address that yearning in very different ways. It’s a theme that dovetails nicely with Folk’s seemingly conflicted feelings with regard to technology; she has a healthy fear of its dangers while also being enamored of its potential (an inner conflict to which many of us can relate). By finding different spots at which to place that ideological fulcrum, her stories strike different balances.

Of course, while ideas are great, none of it matters without the story. And Folk is a tremendous storyteller, one capable of constructing compelling characters and rich, relatable worlds in the course of just a few sentences. The biggest challenge with these pieces is pacing oneself – the temptation to consume them until they’re gone is very real.

“Out There” is a dynamic collection by a gifted writer. Kate Folk’s is a name you’ll want to remember, because if this is the beginning, one can only imagine what might be coming next.

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 April 2022 10:53

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