ON BESIDE MYSELF BY ASHLEY FARMER
TINY HARDCORE BOOKS, 2014
REVIEW BY JEN FRANTZ
Every year, one of my former high school teachers provides a list of rules—certain “tenets of life,” if you will—to roomfuls of nervous fourteen-year-olds. The most important thing to remember, he tells them—as they open to fresh pages of notebook paper, uncap their pens—is that you should never ever date someone who owns a fully dressed mannequin.
“Naked mannequins? Those are probably fine—your significant other could be a fashion designer,” he says. “But if they invite you over to their apartment and hey! there’s a fully dressed mannequin at the kitchen table, it’s time to find someone else.”
With my teacher as inspiration, I tried to design my own list of semi-serious life tenets, most of which revolve around the consumption of peanut butter. However, there is one life tenet I try to follow more than any other, and that is, simply: to have stories. In my pockets, my bedsheets, my thoughts at large.
And the most incredible thing about Ashley Farmer’s collection of short fiction, Beside Myself, is that she allows me to do just that. The collection is pocket-sized (4” x 5”, to be exact), and it does, in fact, fit in the shallow pockets of girl shorts—well, for the most part, at least. Regardless, Beside Myself makes beauty available to me when I’m unwilling to find it in the world myself.
I read Farmer’s collection in the lobby of a Best Western hotel and the parking lot of a rental car office—both times the scenery was dull, my eyes half open—and yet, I found gems like a “moth, thin as paper, an angel of two dimensions” and “the body itself: more spaces than matter.” Every brief story brought the environment, however drab, into sharper focus, while at the same time framing reality with a kind of tenderness and softness.
“From the sky, the cornfield is an advertisement for emptiness…” Farmer writes.
Her (very) short stories, as a whole, are strange and surreal with very little narrative structure. Even so, they manage to successfully inhabit the space between the abstract and the real, nested in the illusion of train tracks meeting the horizon.
Farmer’s unique voice is one of surprises: every story felt refreshing and new, yet distinctively “Ashley Farmer.” As I read, I had to keep a pen within reach, for almost every short piece had a line cast beyond the page—lines like “The rain became snow and the snow became women…” or “I slept alone, on the verge of someone’s shadow.” These lines found the power to shake my vertebrae, giving me chills in eighty degree weather.
If you do end up reading this collection—which you really should at least consider doing—I have to give one piece of (unsolicited) advice: read Farmer’s stories slowly, in transit. Or, if not in transit, somewhere new—under an oak tree with couple’s names carved in from the ’80s, or beside a motel swimming pool, or in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. Consider this a prescription—or perhaps, even better, a dare—for the tedium of life and routine: read Beside Myself in small doses, in new places, and find the seam where abstraction meets reality for yourself.
by Ashley Farmer
Tiny Hardcore Books, February 2014
$10.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-0-9835625-8-0