There are many reasons that an author would want to put a book–an actual physical object–into a reader’s hands, rather than just communicating data. Some books rebuff the notion that fiction is the same when it’s replicated digitally, downloaded, or speed-read. As I write this, the internet is abuzz over the new Spritz app, which promises to revolutionize reading by increasing the speed by which words can enter our consciousness. But does that miss something about the idea of the book? There are those who would make the case for a book being more than just information-delivery. A book like Ashley Farmer’s Beside Myself makes the case for slowing down. Rereading. Enjoying the entire experience of a book as a physical act.
Beside Myself is as much an art object as a collection of fiction. A beautiful thing to hold in your hand and consider as much as a container of profound thought. This new release from Tiny Hardcore Press is a bold move in a world of commercial, mass-produced fiction in the way that any good art challenges its viewer. This pocket-sized, carefully curated book is meant to be experienced; it is the kind of book you want to read in print and be seen reading. It asks its reader to actively approach its material.
Beside Myself is not just striking in terms of its tangible form. Farmer plays with ideas of a narrative line, even within each piece of fiction. Each short piece is a glimpse at something beautiful that doesn’t last, like a fish that swims close to the surface and then darts out of view. Plot lines are not consistently clear, but that’s not always the point. Farmer’s language is beautiful, captivating; her odd phrases strike notes of fragility, universality, and poetic beauty. In the title story, her narrator says,
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. If people asked, you could say that my inclinations had been shaken out of me.
Back then the world was full of men in booths, producing tickets, pressing them into my palms.
Farmer’s characters guide her reader, giving us glimpses of the certainty of physical spaces and relationships: a town, a fair, a movie theater, the DMV. Brothers. She grounds us in physical detail and place. But links are in the shadows. Hard to catch. Slippery. Are these flash fiction pieces? Prose poems? Something in between? Farmer’s collection asks that we let go of the need to be grounded constantly.
Beside Myself opens with an invocation from James Tate: “God! This town is like a fairytale. Everywhere you turn is mystery and wonder. And I’m just a child playing cops and robbers. Please forgive me if I cry.” We see Farmer’s characters through the ripples on the surface, but even when details of the story are deliberately obscured, their emotional impact is clear. Farmer recalls settings, plot points, and motifs with just the hint of suggestion. Sometimes the connections are purely emotional, held together by the beauty of Farmer’s phrasing. “How wrong they were,” she says in “Coffin Water,” a story that speaks all at once to independence and parental expectation and our obsession with death. “[H]ow mistaken, those fathers bruised and troubled by their thirsty girls.” The ideas of bruising, death, and family relationships appear in many of the stories.
Where are we? When are we? As we read Farmer’s collection, we might not always know. But the stories themselves are bound together with emotional truth. Farmer writes oblique sentences that echo something familiar, as in the flash fiction piece “Tornado Warning,” when her narrator says, “[w]e wait like threads to be pulled.”
It’s not all obfuscation, though. Farmer uses clarity of place with specific purpose, often orienting the reader in such pedestrian venues as the DMV or the perfume counter at a department store. She concentrates on the ordinary transactions of commerce. These ordinary places are juxtaposed against transcendent descriptions and ephemeral sensations in the rest of her collection. “Limelight,” which starts with the clang of a cash register, ends with the line, “I sleep naked, unbuffered against the moon pretending myself into a pool that someone thirsty will arrive at and bend down into.” As a result of shifting from vague to specific and from pedestrian to ethereal, the physical details of the story—when they do appear—become more important to the reader. Farmer asks us to consider ideas of author’s intention, and our own reactions to her work.
From the moment you pick up this tiny book, you are a participant in the artistic process. You engage with these stories rather than reading them passively. Are the flash pieces in this book like poems? Some will say yes. But prose too is capable of terse beauty and mystery. Farmer writes with an economy of words and detail, and ultimately these are stories linked together by threads.
How do we read a book like Beside Myself? Like a gift. We study it from all sides, consider how it feels in our hands, read, consider, then read it again. It seems the point of Beside Myself is for us to ask questions. Farmer wants her reader to ask who her unnamed narrator is; she wants us to think about our own relationship to the work. The openness of this plot allows for each reader to bring him or herself to it. Beside Myself also raises larger questions about how we tell stories, and what form those stories take in their delivery. When we finish it, should the process be over, or should we dive back into the pond looking for answers?