REVIEW: Beside Myself by Ashley Farmer

by Benjamin Rybeck

In Beside Myself, Ashley Farmer tells 53 stories in 112 pages. Her debut collection of (mostly) flash fiction is fractured by design, relying on recurring images — neighborhood lawns at night, amusement parks, tunnels of love, grocery stores, TVs turned to the news, cosmetics counters at malls — to provide cohesion. On the surface, each story seems to take place in a recognizable reality, but then

Farmer scrapes at that realistic surface like a puppy at a door, wanting to be let outside to play.

The “reality” of Beside Myself is an off-kilter one, where a man who has fallen over can be unzipped to reveal a smaller man inside, “curled like a question mark.”

Beside Myself is published by Tiny Hardcore, Roxane Gay’s independent press, and these stories are the sort of elliptical experimentations you’d expect when reading an issue of the often-excellent PANK, the literary journal also edited by Gay. Farmer’s stories has been published in a number of hip literary places — not only PANK, but also DIAGRAM, elimae, HOBART, Juked (where Farmer is an associate editor), etc. — which doesn’t surprise me.

Her work is reminiscent of Aimee Bender, Sheila Heti, and Aurelie Sheehan

’s recent collection, Jewelry Box.

Farmer’s best stories take at least a couple pages to tell. In “Coffin Water,” a warning from a father brings about thoughts of funerals and leaking caskets, finally reaching a moment where the young narrator realizes the gaps of knowledge in her father’s thinking about the world, and also in her own. In “DMV,” a driving test — particularly, some melted figurines on the dashboard — leads to a sort of spiritual awakening, the narrator realizing that there are “hands everywhere: one guiding the car like a toy, one waving us toward the bridge, another pointing to the bank of the river.” In “Where Everyone Is a Star” (the most conventional story here), a woman who has “been hired to guide children’s bodies through the air” sees her entire marriage crumble against the backdrop of a gymnastics competition. Elsewhere, a grandfather makes neon light, a tiger yearns first to be captured and then to be free, and a game show contestant’s answers become abstract (“I guessed ‘__’”).

Little in Beside Myself grips — or intends to grip — on a narrative level. Characters seldom have names and blur from one story to the next. To the degree that a reader recognizes him/herself in these pieces, it’s like stepping, as one of Farmer’s characters does, “through shards of [his/her] reflection.” Taken individually, each story is fascinating. But as a collection, its elusive quality occasionally wears me out. These stories keep slipping away, and Beside Myself resists sustained meaning; what does it add up to?

Still,

Beside Myself — closer to poetry than fiction — haunts with its lovely use of language

. This might be Farmer’s foremost goal. Stars are referred to as “pushpins holding black fabric together.” A field is “a surface of water complicated by moonlight.” During sleep, “sheep count you.” The best moments remind the reader that reality can be a strange, startling place. “There is always so much surprise along the path to the barn,” Farmer writes, and Beside Myself introduces a writer who excels at finding all those surprises hidden in the dirt.

Visit Tiny Hardcore Press’s website to preorder the book.

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