Today, we review Ashley Farmer’s first novella, The Farmacist, out this month from Jellyfish Highway Press. We are huge fans of Ashley Farmer’s stories and poems, and we love her collection Beside Myself, so we were thrilled to review her first longer form work. Based on the Facebook game Farm Town, this book is comprised of sixty-one varied chapters written in a style that is all Farmer’s own. This novella is not to be missed.
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.