Ashley Farmer’s Beside Myself is all over the place. Its very (very) short stories are set in woods, near rivers, on the sets of game shows, in department stores, behind grocery stores at night, in traffic. These places feel simultaneously strange and familiar, the way they often do in real life. For as easy as it’d be to label a writer like Farmer “experimental” or “anti-realist,” it’s not like she doesn’t employ mimesis. There is a deeply representative quality to her writing, it’s just that she’s just particularly adept at representing seemingly boring things as they really are: Strange and unnatural, not boring at all, actually. It’s easy to forget all this weirdness if you’re surrounded by it daily and never drop acid, but one of the best things about Farmer’s book is its straightforward power to defamiliarize both the natural world and the endless unnaturalness we insist on imposing on it. A gymnastics studio in “Where Everyone is a Star,” one of the collection’s best stories, has “blatant yellowy walls” , and earlier, a “marble floor is bright flesh with blue veins so convincing you’d bend to kiss it if you weren’t clutching the wrist of distance itself” . At the very least, this kind of descriptive power alerts you to the fact that the places we go have their own weight and character, determined daily by the material and spiritual gravity of the crowds who pass through them. Another thing that’s easy to forget.
More important than the places, though, are the people. Farmer’s characters, often inhabiting some spot between actor and speaker, body and voice, never seem complete, but this incompletion is intentional, and basically the tension that drives the whole collection. How can we know ourselves, let alone one another, when our selves are always shifting? There are lots of flashes of people, parts of them radiating throughout the text without ever quite cohering into a single knowable character. They seem defined more by this lack than by any recognizable feature, like a body that’s “more space than matter” , or the constant feeling of brushing up only against “the edges of others” . Still, these images, stubbornly unfinished as they are, yield important insights in ways infinitely more interesting than just showing or telling. Instead, Farmer invents ways to present people’s contradictions and confusing, intriguing properties, like when she writes about the rich guy, object of a political protest, who turns out only to be a costume of a rich guy – “Beneath the padding: a smaller man, curled like a question mark”  – and reminds you that yes, of course the nominally powerful feel afflicted by – defined by, even – uncertainty, and the crushing awareness of their own insignificance. Just like the nominally powerless. Shapes of people and relationships recur and echo throughout Beside Myself — pairs of siblings, distant couples — suggesting that all of this uncertainty and incoherence might end up binding us together. An unnamed neighbor shows up in a few stories, and his ghostlike presence illustrates how easy it is to remain close to someone and still have to guess about who they are.
The collection’s title story, in which a woman sits in a movie theater and the boundary between herself and another person slowly evaporates, or gets revealed as a ruse, maybe best encapsulates the book’s optimistic orientation toward the problem of being a fractured, undone person. “We’re never the only ones”  the narrator insists, and the collection bears this out. Everyone’s in this together, even if (or because) it can be hard to tell who’s who, where your own self starts and others’ end. Farmer writes stories that are easy to read and often funny and, despite being comprised of syntaxes that don’t exist anywhere else, never sound arbitrary. Beside Myself reads like a calculated attempt at documenting people’s imprecision, and for that reason alone, it might be a good argument for experimental fiction’s practical potential.
Farmer, Ashley, Beside Myself, Tiny Hardcore Books, 2014.
Conley Wouters is a PhD candidate and freelance writer living in Chicago, IL.