Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen

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“Nothing Elizabeth Ellen has ever written has ever been political, ever.” At least according to the four teenage girls in this vimeo book trailer called “A Brief Bio by Elizabeth Ellen” on the book’s promo page. Don’t believe it for a second.

Ellen dedicates all ninety-four stories in her Fast Machine to “once again, the Internet.” And they are not for the faint of heart. A woman attempts to prove she can survive in the wilderness without her ex and has to amputate herself. There is rape by candle at gunpoint, orgasm by cucumber, orgasm by more standard means. In general, there is a lot of sex, much of it violent.

You could say these stories are meant to shock, but we all know that we live in an unshockable age.

The stories—which range from two sentences to 40 pages in length—seem to know this, too, and they take other measures. Sometimes it’s a certain casualness of delivery. Sometimes it’s a point of view that deflects the trauma of events by telling them stick-figure fables or half-jokes, like a stranger at an airport bar who tells a disturbing story then leaves before you can catch her name or ask if that’s how it really went.

As the dedication suggests, most of the stories in Fast Machine were first published on the web (and despite promising no epigraphs and no acknowledgments, Fast Machine has both). Much of the prose on the sites where they first appeared suggest that we’ve entered a post-confessional moment, a moment in which we have confessed ourselves endlessly on Facebook and Twitter and need new myths, fairytales.

Ellen’s Fast Machine says otherwise. Ellen’s prose shares with them a rhythmic concern, a spondaic insistence: “Let us start with these crumbs then nap on the floor. Let us rise up and flourish.”  But confession and exhibition—sometimes twinned—are the main delivery systems here.

I came to Ellen’s work via her chapbook in A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness. There were two stories I had to have more of, each no more than a page. One begins like this: “Let’s set some ground rules, he says. As though we are kids on a playground. As though I am capable of not breaking any rule he sets before me…Rule number one, he says: You can’t write about this. Right, I say. Of course. I won’t.”

This is Ellen’s best distance: the line. It’s not the same as a sentence, the way one thinks about the sentence in an Amy Hempel or Raymond Carver story, but another thing all together: something between a poem and punch line. Ellen’s so good at this you forget that it’s a skill and begin to expect it, begin to want all your stories this way, torn band-aids.

But the thin, harrowing gut-punch of Ellen’s short form gets washed out by the sheer volume of beginnings and endings here. Individually, her pieces make an argument for excision, but gathering them in a 300+ page book makes the opposite argument: one of accumulation. Retelling is one of the hallmarks of obsession, and obsession bleeds through here. But other themes emerge and get lost again in the flipping of pages. Characters recur, but their power to haunt the reader may be reduced by the effort required to keep track of them in multiple points of view over the course of nearly 400 pages.

The vimeo bio offers a sort of defense for this kitchen-sink feel. “She decided to publish her own anthology through Short Flight/Long Drive books which she edits,” the girls read from cue cards and laptops, “because she is uninterested in negotiating which stories to include and what edits to make [and] someone who is not the author of story…” The sentence goes unfinished, misread, or redacted.

‘Uninterested’ is a curious word here.  Can one trace a lineage of writers uninterested in external editors, and how does the Internet change or embolden that choice?

With the loss of traditional space constraints, the rise of the $0.99 e-book and the flourishing of small presses, the Internet has obviously changed the editing game. The web journals where Ellen publishes are wise to the imperative of tabbed browsing, where everything must be read between buying an airline ticket and answering an email, and they tend to pick fiction that hooks you in the first line as Ellen’s so skillfully does. But as more publishers begin to collect this work in books (and e-books), new challenges arise: What happens when these pieces are pushed up against each other? What happens when the distraction of cat videos—the Internet itself—is not there as a buffer between punches?

The answer Fast Machine offers is a sort of baroque maximalism, a place where a delicate melancholy of almost-love in the six-hundred word “Window” is immediately followed by a 10-page play-by-play about hair removal and bowel evacuation (a piece in which the reader is uncomfortably summoned by the second-person telling to consider his or her own personal grooming habits). Meant as a writers’ writer joke or not, the list of names and titles of early 2000s McSweeney’s staffers in “How I Stopped Loving Dave Eggers and Stole Your MFA” seems to come out of the same un-editable urge, and pushes the reader (Eggers fan or otherwise) toward that dreaded question: So what?

Despite the vimeo claims and the outré scenarios and language, the sexual politics of this book are alarmingly retro. On first glance, they can read as ironically so: “I made it my goal to be pretty for you so that when we met you would want to put your mouth on mine and fill my head with bullshit ideas,” one story begins. But by the time a reader gets there, three-quarters in, she understands the earnestness underpinning that wish.

For the primary power the women wield in these stories is still Lysistratan: sex and leaving. A woman gets back at a crummy ex by not aborting herself (“My Friends Think You Are a Piece of Shit”), gets back at a lover by going down on another girl while he stands on the other side of the door, knocking (“A Better Lay”). The week I was reading Fast Machine, Ellen’s Internet was a-twitter with the furor over Rush Limbaugh calling a law student a “slut and whore” (and then demanding videos of the sex he was supposedly subsidizing). When the narrator in “My Friends” quips, “rape would mean someone actually cared,” I felt gut-punched again, and not in the good way.

Of course, a work of literature need only answer to its characters, to the world on the page. But the prolific use of the unnamed pronoun throughout Fast Machine—main characters go unnamed in one quarter of the pieces, and another handful are told in the second-person—argues for a Dick and Jane universalism. In a single story, this is a narrative tromp d’oeil. In a book-length work, it is a mandate. The reader is implicated. The woman. Women. You.

As with these narrative dodges (and the suggestive fishnetted photo on the back cover), Fast Machine dodges labeling: it does not call itself fiction or non-fiction, but one begins to suspect it’s a little of both, a set of fictionalized snapshots of one person’s tragedies, a sort of memoir interruptus.

Indeed Ellen’s at her best when her characters are named, bodied and owned by the first person. “It was embarrassing how often I had misunderstood love or mislabeled it,” the narrator in the “Period Sex” says. The heartbreak of the stories resonates best when the language doesn’t overreach a fundamentally emotional experience. “Your mouth will be downturned like a parenthesis turned sideways in a text to denote sadness,” one narrator predicts, but has anyone ever looked at her lover’s mouth and saw T9 word?

In other words, Fast Machine runs best when it’s guided by Ellen’s sure storytelling instincts, beyond allegory, beyond the anonymity of airport bar bravado: when she just tells you what happened, and to whom, and it is a good story, fiercely honest and keenly elided, and it’s late and your flight’s about to leave, but you stay, just one more, because you have to find out what happened to her.

Kate Petersen's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in New England Review, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Collagist, and elsewhere. She lives in Minneapolis, and is at work on a novel and story collection. More from this author →