Beside Myself by Ashley Farmer
Publisher: Tiny Hardcore Press
Released: Feb 2014
Guest review by Melanie Page
Beside Myself is a book presented as a short story collection. In the blurb released by the publisher, readers will be enticed by unusual premises. We are meant to feel we know something and then have it all taken away from us. The description of the book is fascinating.
The stories themselves are a bit puzzling. While much of my generation fights being labeled, I find labels a useful tool to guide my decisions. I don’t go to the grocery store and wander up and down every aisle in case something new catches my attention; I look for the sign that says “cereal” and expect to find a variety of breakfast goods. I might even be surprised by breakfast bars and pastry treats that I hadn’t even considered. It’s hard for me to agree that Farmer’s collection contains “stories.” Many of the pieces are a brief paragraph. Then the layout of the pages ceased to surprise me. The story begins about halfway down the page, so stories that went on just a touch longer than a paragraph would require me to turn the page to find only two or three more sentences. I always expected more, thinking, “Maybe this piece will be the ‘story.’”
Really, this collection is meant for the scrupulous eyes of a poet, one who will appreciate the language and making meaning out of abstract thoughts. One paragraph is filled with fragments of ideas: “We landed unbearable, but I swallowed red. We had chased. I had stayed on. I had stayed light. We stood up, we burned out, the light we knew lay down. I packed our boxes sister.” What’s going on? Where is the plot? Who is this character?
Then again, I understand that attention to language is highly valuable, and that poets can teach fiction writers in the ways of words. Some pieces had a sense of plot, but Farmer writes each line as though she wants us to really work for that which we seek. Working in a movie theater isn’t the simple exchange of cash for tickets, and getting to work is no easy task: the character is “subscribing to the hollowed-out minutes of an empty movie theater on days that make few demands and even fewer rewards. Back then, a coat was something to be wrangled into. My profile was slack, slumping. The projection of my body toward the bus stop: airless.” Instead of drawing out the pitiful life of this character, Farmer makes the reader fill in the space on his/her own and imagine what it’s like drag yourself to a miserable job. At a little over one full page, this piece, the title piece, is still more about presenting images and emotions than telling a story.
When Farmer turns to plot, her blend of language and story is flawless. “Where Everyone is a Star” left me surprised and full of emotion. One of the longest pieces at a little over five pages, the relationship between a gymnast and his wife who work with children is vibrant. Instead of having the narrator say she and her husband broke up and she went to stay with a friend, Farmer writes, “We splintered. I borrowed a friend’s address.”
I want poets and other language junkies to adore this collection--I know they will. If I had know Beside Myself had more of a poetry bent, I would have passed on reviewing it and recommended it to one of the many people I know who eat this kind of work up. However, if you’re looking for plot and characters--stories, really--this collection may not be best suited for you.
Melanie Page is a MFA graduate, adjunct instructor, and recent founder of Grab the Lapels, a site that only reviews books written by women (www.grabthelapels.weebly.com).