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June 22, 2016

Book Notes - Monica Drake "The Folly of Loving Life"

The Folly of Loving Life

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The linked stories in Monica Drake's striking debut collection The Folly of Loving Life work well as standalone pieces, but together they read like a novel.

Heavy Feather Review wrote of the book:

"As a collection of linked stories, the threads are tight and the callbacks subtle and knowing. The characters themselves are whip-smart and self-aware; Vanessa and Lu know their story as two motherless girls for whom destitution is always lurking around the corner."

In her own words, here is Monica Drake's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection The Folly of Loving Life:

I love ghost signs—those faded, painted advertisements on brick buildings in the oldest part of American cities. There's a story in the way an ad for boot repair might overlap with a hotel singing the song of a room that used to cost less than a buck. It's about time passing, people getting by. The thing about these ads is that now there's a movement to restore them. I don't think a person can restore a fading ad without making it into a different thing: the story is in the way the image weathers the ongoing assault of nature and business. The story is time. Restore the paint and you get kitsch. I'm against it, even as I want to hang on to the spirit of the original images. It's an impossible urge: to preserve the past and simultaneously insist that it be allowed to fade.

The Folly of Loving Life, my new collection of linked stories from Future Tense Books, moves mostly chronologically forward, but it's always about looking back too, with actions echoing against a rugged past. The stories bleed into each other. Like an old ghost sign on a crumbling building, maybe they're a little spooky around the edges.

I've had more than one reader suggest Folly could be called a novel because the collection builds to a cohesive narrative. I like that idea. It is a novel of sorts. But it's a fragmented narrative intentionally allowed to have its gaps, leaps and faded corners. I'm thankful to Future Tense Books, Kevin Sampsell, for giving me the opportunity and freedom to let a work exist in this in-between space where stories merge into a novel's reach. That's the structure of a human life, isn't it? Short pieces inform each other until they add up.

The stories are set in and around Portland, Oregon, over decades. There are flashes of a city that was more rugged, less expensive, and less meticulously designed than Portland is now. In this soggy old town, even if you didn't step into the dive bars you'd still kick your way through spilled beer. Henry Weinhard's brewery poured runoff into the streets, leaving lacey, yellow foam banks in the pre-dawn morning. It was a rainy, insular, and broken place of gurgling fountains, booze and heroin deals down on the same corners where opium had been peddled a hundred years earlier. We lived with that backdrop. There were flourishes and fine moments, like the very first female chief of police in the whole United States, in 1985—Penny Harrington!—but also small town scandals writ large: Harrington's husband may or may not have tipped off a cocaine dealer at a Chinese restaurant down in those same Old Town high drug trafficking corners. There was a feeling everybody in the center of town knew everyone else, from the mayor to street punks and rambling homeless, crossing paths in the same taverns. Permissiveness and neglect contributed to both destructive and creative urges, violence and murderous racism alongside accessible education, high ideals, utopian visions and a culture of constantly questioning authority. Portland was the end of the line for the Rock Against Reagan tour in 1984, when activist musicians poured off their broken down buses and vans to find cheap digs. East Coast radicals came to hide from their own 70's political actions. Portland State was the stomping ground where those East Coast protestors and politicos could play up their tiny part in radical action for underage girls, over a quart of cheap beer.

Those particular details of history aren't in The Folly of Loving Life, but they inform the sensibility, humanity trying to move forward, struggling and aware.

Any playlist to accompany the stories would reach through time and be rooted in place—in this case, Portland, back before the New York Times caught on to how cool this city really is, or was, despite a raft of problems. Portland's always had a raging live music scene, from Satyricon to Pine Street, later La Luna, then Dandelion Pub, that little hole in the wall, the Last Hurrah, the Long Goodbye, and Key Large, aka "Large Kilo," and every spot had its bands, along with its particular drug culture, paired like a meal with a fine wine, style and substance, or maybe substance abuse. These days Foster Burger, over on SE Foster road, has walls papered with decades-old band flyers, ephemera meant to disappear salvaged and reused: Killing Fields, Sweaty Nipples, Hell Cows, The Wipers. Then there was Slack, Dial Memphis, all history.

My playlist moves away from the past into the present, then out of the particulars to a greater expansiveness beyond the boundaries of this city. Here's the list, with all thanks and love. Cheers to fading beauty.

Dead Moon - "In the the Graveyard"
This band and the song come right out of the rainy, working class city Portland has been, with the right kind of wildness let loose. It in holds that beautiful line in a tension between the love of living and certainty of death. Drummer Andrew Loomis recently passed on. I put this song on the list in his honor, in memory, for a man about town, Portland phenom, with style to spare and serious energy on stage.

Satan's Pilgrims - "Haunted House of Rock"
Satan's Pilgrims has a cameo in the collection. I could've chosen a few of their songs—many!--but I'm going with this one for its almost narrative line; it moves forward, ominous and steady, and always a good time. My collection starts with a haunted house, and a troubled brain, and this works perfectly.

Esperanza Spalding - "One"
Because she's genius. Fantastic. And this persona or character she's created? Terrific.

Dandy Warhols - "Bohemian Like You"
A lovely wry commentary on co-opting and sculpting one way of life, or maybe of forging quick and forgotten connections.

Julia Wolfe - Cruel Sister
This piece of modern classical music was originally written as "program music," meaning it sets out to tell or convey a story, translating narrative drama into notes, and sound. It asserts so fully that classical music, like art, doesn't need to sooth anybody. It's here to make a scene.

Kendrick Lamar - "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe"
This is such a conflicted song, with a few hard moments and a gentle, almost generous delivery. It starts out nearly confessional, edging toward repenting—"I am a sinner, whose probably going to sin again…"--then makes a quick dodge toward near accusation, never resting easy with any certainty about relationships, who's a friend, who's a threat. People are complicated and difficult, hiding from themselves and each other. That's so often the crux of short fiction, this collection included, and here it is. I never use the word "bitch." I don't like gendered attacks. I'll overlook it in this one, to enter into the spirit of the song, the character of the delivery.

Sonny Fodera and Gene Farris - "We Work It"
This song moves the stories forward, whatever the stories are. I'm not "doing ‘caine" while I work, but I can enter the narrative and let it inform the vision.

Shiba San - "I Can't Remember"
What a difficult name for this electronic mix! Run a search for it, and you'll find a lot of people who can't remember the names of songs, moments of their lives, dance parties, nights out. Isn't that the way of things? Strangers grasping at elusive memories to narrate back their own lives. The piece is worth tracking down. This electronica is evocative, fragmented and as associative as memory. It can loop and run in the background of a lifetime of stories like a buzz, or a Sunday morning mood. All good.

Monica Drake and The Folly of Loving Life links:

the author's website

Electric Literature review
Heavy Feather Review review
LitReactor review
Portland Mercury review
Willamette Week review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Stud Book

also at Largehearted Boy:

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