Books, Review, Arts

Kate Folk Reveals Absurdity of Modern World in Innovative Debut Collection of Stories

The short story is a form that remains tethered to its forebears despite modern advancements in literature. There’s a certain element to the short story that makes it more accessible than the novel, apart from its brevity. It has a distinct vagueness that allows the reader to fully find him or herself in its sparse words, no matter how out there the plot or characters may be. Whether readers are consuming the writing on the screen of a tablet or in the pages of a book, the short story can endure as a cornerstone of literature in the digital age. 

In her debut collection of short stories, Out There: Stories, writer Kate Folk combines the onslaught of modernity with the age-old form of short stories perfectly. By mixing the classic eeriness that short stories offer through sudden immersion in an unfamiliar world with the perils of modernity, Folk carves out a breathtaking style of her own creation. 

Most writers struggle to straddle the line between two genres, but Folk’s plain yet striking prose allows her to insert sci-fi plotlines seamlessly into contemporary fiction. Her collection, which came out on March 29, is reminiscent of the eclectic stories of Miranda July, but Folk adds a more ominous Black Mirror–esque twist to her tales of modern life. 

The titular story, “Out There,” initially published in The New Yorker, follows a young woman living in the San Francisco Bay Area as she uses dating apps to meet up with people among a sea of “blots”—fleshy, movie-star-looking, artificial men created by Russian intelligence agencies to harvest data from unsuspecting, affection-hungry women. 

Somehow, despite the highly futuristic concept of the piece, Folk creates a story that reads like any other contemporary experience about dating but serves as a metaphor for the dangers and emotional constipation of online dating. 

In another standout piece, “The House’s Beating Heart,” Folk paints a vivid picture of a house with organs as told by its ailing graduate student tenants. Folk is reminiscent of the writer Carmen Maria Machado, known for her lyrical memoir In the Dream House, but Folk adds her own sickly and perturbed elements to the story. The grotesque descriptions of the various organs peppering the crevices of the house are stomach-churning in a way that demands attention, yet somehow they blend in seamlessly with all the necessary details of the story. 

The crown jewel of the collection, however, is “Heart Seeks Brain.” The story is a twisted commentary on the absurdity of kinks and objectification. Folk’s genius comes primarily from her ability to inject the preposterous into mundanity and seamlessly get away with it. In “Heart Seeks Brain,” that talent is on full display. 

What is perhaps most compelling about Out There: Stories is its profound sense of relevance to universal experiences of modern life. Much like the short story as a form, human emotions tend to remain the same despite technological advances. Folk proves both of these points with the collection of stories, creating a truly sublime literary portrait of where we are and where we’ll end up.

Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab / Heights Editor

Book Cover Courtesy of Penguin Random House

April 3, 2022