The Digitally Absurd: The Farmacist by Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer’s work is unusual, beautifully so. In the author’s 2014 collection, Beside Myself, (from Pank’s Tiny Hardcore Press), characters would only briefly mention specifics of traditional narratives like place, yet the cascade of images and sentiments expressed by Farmer’s narrators created an overall stability in the book. Delicacy of strange images defines Farmer’s writing. With Beside Myself, short, difficult-to-define pieces straddle a line between flash fiction and poetry, Farmer established herself as a writer whose work is meant to be read holistically and experientially.

Such is also the case with Farmer’s new book, The Farmacist, from Jellyfish Highway Press. In The Farmacist, Farmer’s narrator struggles to untangle herself from the Facebook game, Farm Town, as her actual life unfolds around her. The juxtaposition of virtual versus real, Farmer’s mining of Farm Town for metaphor, and the duality of the narrator’s desires make The Farmacist, told in the author’s trademark short, mysterious, and glimmering prose.

The Farmacist begins with Farmer’s narrator addressing the omniscient presence looking over her shoulder — is this someone playing the game, the computer, or the reader? Farmer’s narrator is observed by all three. “You are with me,” she says, “though the acres are ending, all of it evaporating like anti-magic.” This sets the tone for a hyper-aware, meta-narrative.

There’s joy and irreverence in Farmer’s imagery each time she blends the vocabulary of Farm Town with that of the flesh-and-blood American experience. She says —

The farm makes you remember the Fourth of July, conjures the family portrait burning, the secret handshakes of senators, chrysanthemums on a banquet table for which you got paid a semi-wage, icy freeways or summer roads littered with locusts, and the ghost of Ted Kennedy drinking on the lawn.

Though at times the reader doesn’t have traditional narrative footholds, Farmer guides through a pastiche of things — both digital and worldly.

Farmer’s poetic voice shines in The Farmacist, and is demonstrated in her singular attention to details like sound. Lines like “Bundled, blue, and warm, I was their incident, their accident” underscore the broader scope of the story — one where a woman finds herself through digital creation — with the idea that meaning can be found anywhere, even in virtual realities. “I’ve stayed small against seasons,” the narrator says, speaking equally of farm and self. Farmer reminds us of the never-ending call from the digital world, emblematic of our deepest anxieties: “In bed, I will separate wheat from the chaff and make progress. I’ve added acres to my sleep and the profit from it: immeasurable.”

“I wait to go where I’m supposed to go,” says Farmer’s narrator —

some place ridiculous and waiting. Which is to say: I miss the world I knew. I embrace my worst impulse involving bed and drapes and sunny-sunny days. I realize some loves of my life are gone. I sense the farm is a long, fake waste.

As The Farmacist unfolds, its narrator loses control over both farm and reality. As she burns her candle at both ends, the narrative’s sense of panic — of not being able to stem the tide of digital problems — increases. Farmer’s narrator complicates her story (interestingly) by inserting philosophical ideals into the story. She runs Freud by her farm, and Jung. Her parents. As she brings the real world and points of view about the nature of existence into the same realm as the digital farm, we see how it is both absurd and absurdly important. Farmer’s work is sly commentary on the way we give away our power to computers, their feigned significance. She says, “I’m surrounded: chemical light sonnets and armies of alarms on a single block.”

“Failing at one world means nothing in another,” Farmer’s narrator says in a chapter called “Daily Lottery.” Though her digital farm is analogous to so many things that take up our attention, Farmer makes The Farmacist theater of the absurd in the digital age. Yes, this is a book about a Facebook game. But the author proves it’s a book about a Facebook game with something to say about humanity.

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