Beside Myself, Ashley Farmer’s debut story collection, is out March 3, 2014 from Tiny Hardcore Press. Farmer’s flash fiction surprises from story to story and from sentence to sentence, constantly asking the reader to re-evaluate impressions formed just a moment before. These stories are often surreal, but sometimes not; some are longer and more narrative; others are just a few sentences and focus on an image or scene. Whatever the case, the collection as a whole appeals to our desire to fantasize. The book begins with a shared fantasy, as two characters imagine a high school football game played out on the front lawn. In this way, even the stories that are not surreal convey the presence of imagination. In “The Ridge” the narrator remembers:
My mother used to drive us up to The Ridge, a neighborhood that overlooked ours. My favorite house was a lavender cube with pink windows. My grown self flickered like heat in the kitchen. I imagine the owner imagined what I imagined: that she lived in the successful future.
Fantasy, Farmer reminds us, is inescapable, even within the bounds of our real lives. In “Pink Water,” a woman talks about working at a cosmetics counter, selling “a pink mist that promised to erase anything the opposite of heavenly from one’s face,” which attracts hordes of hopeful women. “The Tunnel of Love” referenced in the first story reappears later in the collection. It remains a destination the narrator has only heard about, one she wants to visit but never reaches. “Still Life with Neighbor” is a story that turns out to be (spoiler alert) a collection of contradictory imaginings about a neighbor. As Farmer writes at the end: “There has never been a neighbor, but you think of him just the same.”
Though her stories are brief, they quickly establish an intimacy between the reader and their (usually) first person narrators. In the hands of anyone else, some of the subjects could be recognizable. A couple whose relationship is on its last legs transports a dying bat. A narrator describes her reaction to a girl she knew being killed by a car. A woman who works spotting kids at a gymnastics studio splits with her husband, who coaches there. She comments: “Dreamless nights, I imagined myself on the clearer side of the glass. An expert adult, even-pulsed, all filled up and watching only her own.” Farmer’s narrators indulge their urges to imagine, allowing the reader to as well. Like the stories themselves, the sentences that comprise them are beautiful, efficient, and odd. Reading them does not fall into the realm of normal experience. Each one is powerful enough to stand on its own:
“Then the June road vanished a girl I knew.”
“She was a memory so familiar that she became abstract if I considered her for more than a moment.”
“I sleep naked, unbuffered against the moon pretending myself into a pool that someone thirsty will arrive at and bend down to.”
Certainly some of Ashley Farmer’s lines could find themselves at home in poems, but these are stories. Some unfold from a surreal conceit (like a constantly burning fire) but in others the surreal simply creeps into a scene, part of the environment. For an instant, rain turns into naked, melting women falling from the sky, then a man faces another woman, this one disappointed and solid. Nature itself recoils from protesters, ivy withering at their assault.
These stories are unlike any flash I have ever read. They have the conviction of Lydia Davis shorts (rarely can an author pull off flash so short) and a linguistic inventiveness equal to that of Diane Williams. They are not fables. To me, they don’t seem quite like dreams, either. They are conscious fantasies, the kind you want to slip into when you are wide awake, reading. You will want to ration and reread these stories, giving each one a chance to settle and resettle in your mind. Reading these stories is like driving past a stranger’s window and imagining the lives behind it. They are perfect and exhilarating, filled with the promise of the impossible.
Title: Beside Myself
Author: Ashley Farmer
Publisher: Tiny Hardcore Press
Review by Sadye Teiser