The Stud Book by Monica Drake
Monica Drake's second novel, The Stud Book, portrays the middle age woes of four childhood female friends living in Portland, Oregon. There's Dulcet, the unmarried alcoholic. She earns money by dressing up in a latex suit custom-made to depict the human anatomy, wearing it to high school assemblies and getting paid to teach students about sex ed. Then there is Sarah. She works at the Portland Zoo, specifically monitoring the animal reproduction and family dynamics. Sarah and her husband have suffered their share of miscarriages. There's Nyla, a middle-aged environmentalist, hippie, widow with one daughter off at college and another navigating the craziness that is high school. Lastly, there's Georgie -- a career woman who has recently given birth to a daughter, launching herself into motherhood while her husband launches himself into Portland's bar scene.
These women are so completely different from each other, it is a wonder that their friendship could have survived from high school into adulthood as it has. If it sounds like this could be a setup for a sitcom, a sort of Desperate Housewives, that's only because you haven't yet read the book. The Stud Book is more of an episode of Disparate Housewives -- the consistency of the writing is as discordant as the characters. Is it possible for a book to be too clever, too tongue-in-cheek for its own good? Drake has written this book as a dark comedy, a novel that doesn't seem sure whether it is novel or a social commentary. I admire her for her sincere ingenuity and creativity -- traits that don't seep through into modern fiction all that often. But the book is bipolar, at times even sloppy, and the narrative left me unsatisfied.
Drake describes the current lives of the characters, their families, and the troubles surrounding parenthood -- or lack thereof, while putting the story in a larger context of the animal kingdom. The juxtaposition of Sarah's work at the zoo alongside the characters' struggles with reproduction and children is conceptually clever. Reproduction at zoos is scientific, and focused on efforts to keep a species alive. But the human population is already so huge -- why the constant need for assisted human reproduction? Then there is the difficult irony that so many couples struggle to have a baby, while others have many children. While Drake's thesis is clear, it's challenging to summarize the plot, because, frankly, there isn't much of one. The chapters, for the most part, go back and forth from character to character, contributing to the loss of story. What this book lacks in plot, it makes up for in rebellion. The Stud Book is a brave book because it questions human reproduction in a way that isn't normally publicly discussed.
Along with the plot, The Stud Book is also lacking when it comes to characters. These unfortunate people are all stuck with Drake's random, flakey dialogue, and cutesy expressions. They are all unlovable; their hopeless flaws don't give the reader a chance to sympathize with any of them. The women are weak and wounded, in a way that makes them targets to be despised. The men in this book are all portrayed as clumsy, sexual brutes. Does this even matter to Drake? Perhaps she created unlovable characters as part of the whole grand scheme, to make them seem more animal, less human.
Additionally, Drake's writing style is more awkward than experimental. I found sandwiched exclamations such as this one, distracting: "Sarah hated to turn her down, sensing a kindred spirit -- they both had clipboards! -- but it was zoo policy." Another time Sarah is at the zoo, observing elephants: "Sarah had stood in the same spot weekly for months, watching each baby elephant flop its short trunk and learn to use it. They had to develop those muscles! Supercute." "Supercute"? Along with her use of juvenile expressions, Drake's occasional writing sloppiness can be disconcerting as well. It is repeated too many times that in Portland, the winter is long, dark, gloomy, and the days are short. I now have zero desire ever to visit Portland, except for maybe a trip to Powell's headquarters. There are several incidents of word redundancy and description redundancy as well. And then, there are scenes that will totally blindside you, and not in a good way. More like a car accident sort of way. There's a sexual assault that flies in out of nowhere and is never revisited again. There's also a moment of adultery that doesn't really go further than the actual event. Those are usually pivotal moments in literature, are they not?
Despite the weaknesses, The Stud Book has its share of strengths, including a handful of strong descriptions. I love this visual of the floor in a room one of the characters is visiting: "The chipped floorboards were as textured as the best kind of painting." I also thought this description of the night sky in a gentrified part of town was telling, "The sky was an evening bruise." There are also some unforgettably strong scenes. One of these takes place in a carwash. A seemingly innocuous chore is turned into a beautifully worded moment, as Sarah drives through with a migrant worker day laborer that she has picked up on the side of the road. One sentence from this scene reads: "The car was a private cabin on a rainy night, a weekend getaway. It was Noah's ark in a car wash flood and they were two in a pair." I wish that there were more strong scenes and visuals such as these in The Stud Book.
Maybe it's just where I am in my life, or maybe with the population growing at the speed it is, it's more universal than my own social circle -- but I feel like everyone is having babies. And lots of them. Parenthood is so often portrayed on television and in books as shiny, happy, pastoral, as a given. Drake has written a book that doesn't portray parenthood in the glossy sheen that it is so often seen as being, and for that, she is audacious. It is a disappointment that her writing isn't more consistently in line with her clever ambitions.
The Stud Book by Monica Drake