The Folly of Loving Life
(Future Tense Books, 2016)
I’ve spent decades listening to what other people from other places think the Pacific Northwest is all about. Reading Monica Drake’s first collection of short stories, The Folly of Loving Life, I feel I’ve finally found a way to ward off all those mis-imagined fairy tales of the cities of the Northwest that so many people have created. Portland is not simply a mecca for all things wonderful, “artsy,” and “edgy” any more than is Brooklyn. Portland is a real city with real urban issues and a population that suffers from many of the ills rampant in the sprawl that is American urban life.
Monica Drake gets Portland. She understands its dark spaces and has a well-honed ability to write about the real people who live there. Her stories are dry, shocking, sad, but not without a certain amount of dark humor and sometimes, a space for hope. Her characters are wounded—by life, love, poverty, and circumstance. There are no sparkling organic farming hipsters here. But instead there is a mother who succumbs to madness, her daughters who struggle to find their own ways to survive, and a home that loses its farmland to the drive-ins and car lots of urban sprawl.
Drake has published two successful novels (Clown Girl and The Stud Book) and Folly comes close to being a novel written in fragments. The stories in this collection take place over several years and are linked through shared characters and shared locations in a Portland before artisanal brunches and Portlandia jokes moved in. Drake’s stories are also linked by the brutality of gentrification, the violence done to girls and women by families, lovers and themselves. This Portland is “an anorexic town” where girls “worked hard to be less, expect less.”
Drake’s main protagonists are two sisters, Nessa and Lu. Their parents move them to a hoped-for Eden which in reality is “surrounded by surveyor’s stakes with fluttering ribbons bright and ugly as crime scene tape.” Nessa leaves home to drift through the world making her way from local failed hockey players and foreign failed dictators to a degree in Critical Theory, somehow managing through all the darkness in between. Her younger sister Lu is left abandoned but remains somehow semi-intact despite a fast food work accident that burns “Fry-O-Later” into her skin and her own inner darkness. Lu, like Nessa, refuses to eat. It’s one aspect of her life she can control. She sees food as enemy and as “a creepy ghost, a body inside [her] own body.”
What lifts this collection out of localized misery and average American dark storytelling, is both the female-centric perspectives in the collection as a whole but also the way Drake shows the suffering of an entire segment of an urban population. From Lu’s veteran ex-drone operator with PTSD to the various drug addicts and drifters that give additional breadth to the narrative, this is a portrait of American life seldom acknowledged and from which there is rarely any escape. But it is not all darkness as one character says; Portland is a “green zone, to his mind. Not in the military sense, but a place he could hide and hope.” This is Portland as it really is, and not Portland as it is imagined by wannabe hipsters and Easterners desperate for escape from the grinding urban sprawl of other American cities. Drake’s characters may not be strong enough to escape but they do hold onto joy, exemplifying the folly of loving life: “What could you do, with a world like that? I was in love with every minute of being alive even as I floundered.”