Review: The First Writer’s Stories, a hilarious guide to a brave new world of chatbots and annihilation

Kate Folk is the author of “Out There”. Photo: Emily Ray Reese

From politics to public health, the past few years have provided us with countless reminders that life is strange and volatile. The bizarre and funny stories in Kate Folk’s first book would be satisfying to read in any era, but they’re particularly well suited to this one.

In “Out There”, Folk’s protagonists – young women, for the most part – are beset by walking chatbots, anthropomorphic buildings and apocalyptic emergencies. It’s not hard to see why Hulu adapts its stories for the screen. Switching between pathos and farce, Folk, who lives in San Francisco and was a Wallace Stegner Scholar at Stanford University, writes witty cinematic fiction that fuses familiar scenarios with an uncanny menace.

“The Void Wife,” perhaps the funniest story in the book, centers on Elise, a Midwesterner who flees to the Bay Area as an unexplained force ravages the planet. The newly discovered “void” is a “belt around the globe” that widens hour by hour, snuffing out all life and leaving behind, well, nothing at all. Humans can’t stop it, so millions have embraced the idea that the void is, as one character puts it, “a straight drop to the sky.” Elise doesn’t believe it, but she can’t persuade her flint mother to take evasive action. When her mother compares it to a big storm, Elise answers in a neutral tone: “It’s not a tornado, mom. It is a curtain of absence that negates everything it touches.

“Over There” by Kate Folk Photo: Random House

In San Francisco, Elise meets a man who promises her a place on the cruise ship he is supposed to own. At sea, Robert says, they can dodge the void. But Robert promises more than he can deliver. A tongue-in-cheek character study of a woman who stays the course through extremely difficult times, “The Void Wife” is also a deft satire that takes aim at religion, COVID truthers and Silicon Valley bluster.

The stories that end the collection – “Out There” and “Big Sur” – are about Bay Area women who, in this confusing age of artificial intelligence, don’t know if they’re dating people or ” biomorphic humanoids” known as “spots. Baffled by possibly awkward and suspicious spots of politeness – one of them gives his date a 3-foot-tall sunflower – the protagonists of Folk begin to see sketchy behavior as proof they’re dating real men Guy asks his new girlfriend to sleep over but “pretends (she doesn’t exist)” because her roommates might “It was a little demeaning,” she said, “which I took as another promising sign.”

In three floors, the houses take on disturbing human features. A place has walls that open up unless they’re constantly treated with expensive lotion; another’s boards sprouted “a man’s head”. Showcasing Folk’s ear for hesitant, deadpan dialogue – “It seems like now there’s a gender issue. Human rights,” one character says of the floor manager – they are deft parodies of smart home technology and real estate fetishization.

Once or twice, in its effort to push wild storylines, Folk builds its narratives around relatively forgettable protagonists, sidelining its most promising characters. The story of the lotion-starved house centers on a womanizer who destroys his marriage. His mother, based on a few brief mentions, seems more interesting. Once a “radical” from Berkeley, she was “now living in Argentina with her young boyfriend, a retired soccer star who modeled in billboards.” Alas, she is only mentioned, never a presence in the story.

Will this iconoclastic cougar make an appearance in the novel that, according to her website, Folk is writing? We can hope. For now, let’s savor the winning debut of Folk, a book that deftly captures the craziness of our time.

Over there: stories
By Kate Folk
(Random House; 256 pages; $27)

Author event

The Booksmith features Kate Folk in conversation with Ploi Pirapokin: 7:00 p.m. April 7. Free ; RSVP required. 1727 Haight St., SF 415-863-8688.


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