Ashley Farmer’s Beside Myself has plenty of surreal imagery and an accelerated pace, but the collection feels oddly calm. It’s a book about introspection rather than bombshell plot twists. The characters are constantly turning the narrative inward, and there’s a sense of nostalgic distance in many stories—the kind of clarity that comes with time.
Consider the story “Summer Accident,” in which a girl vanishes, and the narrator notes that a neighbor’s “a black truck held the dent in its hood.” Later, a semi-truck is seen “dragging a segment of funhouse off,” and it appears that this narrator’s world is forever overshadowed by the threat of hit-and-run drivers. It’s a story about fear, uncertainty, and the eventual ability to cope. Farmer’s final lines in “Summer Accident” showcase a sense of clarity. She writes “The front yard oak tree rotted with sudden diseases. We gutted its trunk in the dark and packed the wound with wet cement. A scourge of thin, yellow worms writhed in the branches. If you stood back, the leaves moved. If you stepped across the road, the whole thing looked alive.” The physical distance from the tree becomes synonymous with chronological and emotional distance from the summer accident, the terror, and the obsessed anxiety. Through a change in perspective, the narrator can look at the grisly tree and remember its life rather than its death. It’s a symbolic mourning process that encapsulates weeks or months of grief through a simple step across the street, away from the source, away from the summer of tragedy.
This type of symbolic character meditation is common throughout Beside Myself. Take for example “The Light at the End of the Tunnel of Love,” in which the brief excursion through the tunnel, toward the light, explores both mistakes and forgiveness in the same instance. It’s a surreal look at what the character was, is, and could be. Meanwhile, many characters also grapple with a confused sense of self as they contemplate, trying to figure out how to make sense of the flash fiction snapshots they inhabit. While some characters achieve clarity, many underscore hesitation, and characters aren’t quite sure how to gain a fresh viewpoint on their rocky pasts. “Assembled” captures this idea overtly; the story opens with “It was tentative, how I assembled myself.” Eventually, the story progresses toward the final moment of disassembly. When the narrator removes her mask-like cosmetics, staring at herself in the mirror, she says “The raw face approximat[ed] one I recognized.”
In other cases, characters detach and seek distance from themselves, as is the case in the title story. Characters often need to dissociate to examine their own lives, looking for proof of worth or proof of self. There is hesitation in many stories, certainty in others, but the overall impression is a twisted game of character hide-and-seek, and there’s a certain delight every time the reader ‘finds’ the character—really finds her, in her most vulnerable moment.
In this way, Beside Myself is grounded in characterization, but there’s a yet another contemplative layer woven through the collection. While character is central to Farmer’s work, she also extends a friendly hand to readers, inviting them into the fold. Her stories are minimalistic, and she makes deliberate choices to hold certain things back. Faced with intentionally skeletal stories, readers superimpose their own flesh onto the narrative. Farmer relies on these audience preconceptions rather than fighting against them.
In many stories, the invitation is extended explicitly, using the second-person point of view. The “you” being addressed is often ghostly and abstract, and readers can imagine themselves filling in, interacting directly with the character. Readers always bring a piece of themselves to a book—that’s nothing new—what is exciting and refreshing is how comfortable and encouraging Farmer is with this fact. She doesn’t seek to control the narrative; she purposely leaves certain pieces fuzzy, letting the readers add their experiences into the mix. Beside Myself wants to you to get involved. It wants you to reflect, to feel, and to engage in dialogue with the characters—there are few monologues here. It’s an innovative collection that plays with character and narrative, encouraging readers to feel at home in its pages. You won’t be disappointed as long as you approach it with an open mind, willing to embrace occasional ambiguity.
Beside Myself, by Ashley Farmer. Tiny Hardcore Press. 132 pages. $10.00, paper.
James R. Gapinski’s fiction has recently appeared in Line Zero, theNewerYork, and the Pink Fish Press anthology, Involution. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and he currently teaches at Pueblo Community College. James lives in Colorado with his partner and the standard hermit’s assortment of books, video games, and cats.