Book Review: The Farmacist by Ashley Farmer

December 7, 2015


The Farmacist, Ashley Farmer’s first novella, was published this month by Jellyfish Highway Press. The book focuses on Farm Town, a Facebook game that was a precursor to the more well known Farmville. It consists of sixty-one chapters, probably better described as meditations: they are coherent in themselves, but still connect to the novella more broadly. Indeed, Farmer’s experience with flash fiction and poetry is fairly obvious here: the chapters, occasionally abstract and inching toward fantastical, are powerful demonstrations of her ability to get a point across economically. The fractured, disjointed format helps to illuminate a number of disconnects that Farmer seems to be working with: the distance between our real selves and our online selves, the disintegration of the American dream, and perhaps most of all, the lack a clear distinction between the rural and the urban.

Following in the footsteps of literary speculative fiction writers, Farmer repeatedly questions the distinction between the natural and the manmade. In the novella, she is able to routinely alternate between genuine rural imagery and the computerized pastoral that comprises Farm Town: “I’m exiting through the field of wheat. I’m scratching the head of each well-tempered sheep as it grazes forever on my tender patch of lawn.Elsewhere, the distinction between the “real” and the computerized is often subtle; Farmer’s work demands constant attention. Likewise, in chapters like “Overheard in the Market Place,” there is no delineation, the situation Farmer describes is applicable to both the real and the virtual. Parallels with Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are difficult to avoid here, especially between the tenderness with which the protagonists of both works care for their mechanized livestock. The extent to which we invest ourselves emotionally in things that aren’t real is generally grounds for well-deserved derision, but Farmer seems to cast an empathic eye toward her narrator, a young female ostensibly from a farming family. Although Farmer’s narrator is one of the few constants throughout the novel, her presence is all but lost in some of the more opaque chapters. Instead of unilaterally condemning our capacity for being distracted, Farmer is able to probe what the ramifications of these distractions are, and how they sever our relationships with others. The density of her work follows Chekhov’s old dictum that nothing be wasted; her choices are deliberate. The compacted abstractions don’t make for the easiest read, but it’s apparent that her decisions are anything but arbitrary.

It would be easy to fall back on traditional pastoral tropes, to eulogize the absence of green fields and traditional farming methods to a technologically hyperliterate readership. Romanticizing farm life for a largely urban readership would be picking at low-hanging fruit, but Farmer avoids falling into clichés. She’s able to blur the distinction between urban and rural in subtle ways, referring to palm trees as being built to bend rather than break, arguing that it was “how they were made,” and elsewhere seamlessly blending nature with NASDAQ and the NYSE with Walt Whitman. She understands the ways in which collective nostalgia for the pastoral can be exploited and distorted, of the irony inherent in advertisements for a Woody Guthrie commemorative plate or of “This Land is Your Land” being played through a boombox.

Nevertheless, The Farmacist is still essentially an ode to what it means to be alone in a crowd: the 21st century, already oversaturated with irony, faces the contradiction that technology, with its capacity for bringing us closer together, also possesses the ability to isolate us in hitherto unseen ways. Internet escapism provides solace to the extent that, in Farmer’s words, “failing at this world means nothing in another” but Farm Town only serves to further isolate the protagonist. At one point, Farmer refers to her farm as a tabula rasa. The ability to modify one’s identity online could be seen as liberating, but Farmer is preoccupied with the same problem that both postmodernists and modernists like Fernando Pessoa spent their entire lives worrying about: be myself? Which one? Indeed, in a section entitled Masks, the narrator remarks, “But when I pulld [the mask] off, my real face was absent. In its place: an arrangement of hashtags.” These two sections, which follow each other, are typical of Farmer’s work. The connections are tangential, but purposefully so, a similar thread follows through most chapters.

Even though some of the ideas that Farmer engages are not specific to 21st century life, she doesn’t hesitate in grappling with more complex ideas about our relationship with technology. There is a certain danger when representations of objects appear more real than the objects themselves, of when life imitates technology: “I buy an above ground pool but the water surface freezes like a screen,” and elsewhere compares a river’s breath to the broken needle of a record player. The notion of apple-flavored candy tasting more like an apple than the fruit itself or the phenomenon of war and atrocity feeling “like a video game” represents a very specific form of alienation that Farmer’s generation was perhaps the first to experience, and the nuance with which she handles this phenomenon is particularly impressive.

It’s tempting to read The Farmacist in one sitting, but the wealth of ideas and the relative lack of a linear plot mean that the novella is better appreciated with some amount of patience. Each meditation provokes discussion in its own right, and they vary widely: One section entails only, “Keep your heart in the dirt and the dirt in your heart,” while another is a sort of love letter to Venus from the perspective of Earth. It’s easy to wade through ideas on the American Dream, America’s distinction between rural and urban, and the relationship between isolation and technology without adding to the conversation, but Farmer successfully approaches familiar themes in a completely unique and often quite poetic way, and is always building on the conversation rather than merely reiterating it. This is by no means an easy work, but it is an immensely rewarding one.

Reviewed by Jeremy Klemin

Publisher: Jellyfish Highway Press

Publication date: December 1


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