By Ashley Farmer
Jellyfish Highway Press
Reviewed by James Yates
Ashley Farmer's latest novella, The Farmacist, is a wonderful example of world-building, but it also resists the obvious definitions that usually go along with that concept. Weird events, characters, and philosophies occupy "Farm Town," which works as both a real place and a metaphorical atmosphere in the novella. It's a small, rural town, which the narrator knows, loves, and despises, but also a nod, even if just in name only, to "Farmville," the game subjected to ridicule when requests to play come through Facebook, a tangible example of the intangible wrongs of social media and the mission to keep us locked online, blissfully lost in games and data mining, for as long as possible.
Told in short chapters that could also be viewed as stanzas, the progression of The Farmacist asks contemporary questions, blurs the line between urban and rural novels, and mixes styles to create a highly original work of art.
Farmer opens the book with a beautiful section that hints at the forthcoming themes, but does so in a way that (intentionally) doesn't expand on its ideas, but merely rests on its strong imagery:
Sometimes I'm afraid of you. I get the feeling you're putting me on, that the trees I dream aren't linked to the truth. I have fourteen friends with birthdays this week. Events to pretend to attend/attend to. Outside the farm, the earth is moving—and yet the world is ending, or so it seems when I step into the crosswalk and observe the clouds shifting white to black, into geometry.
The notion of social media's coldness and loneliness-in-the-face-of-connection isn't a new idea, and as its own concept, it isn't enough to sustain more than one mention, unless the writer digs much deeper, which Farmer does right away: "Purple hyacinths broadcast thirst: empty water droplets linger beside us. I materialize at the inn, beneath the severed heads of bucks to sip water standing up and watch pixilated ladies LOL and appear identical."
This careful shift from the self ("materialize") to the observable world ("pixilated ladies") is more complex than a simple critique of technology. At the beginning of The Farmacist, Farmer moves freely from realism to the fantastical, often making these separate worlds one and the same. The narrator expresses her own complicity in the fakeness of the world and her surroundings: "I'm foolish, but not so easily fooled: in one photo she's whole, in the other incomplete."
There isn't a definite longing for the big city in this book, but there are mentions of its existence and sway, and examples of how the contemporary rural and urban landscapes can become blurred. While the narrator's heart seems to belong to Farm Town, there's a fascination with the availability and weirdness of other areas.
You turn off trees: buildings dim, too. Left to its own devices, the farm becomes sexual-mechanical with the sound of women dubbed over iTunes playlists crafted for back barn interludes. Left to its own devices, the farm forgets its ideals. It becomes easy greed and gift getting.
The Farmacist requires multiple readings, because many of its smaller ideas can be lost with a quick read-through. While landscapes and infrastructures dominate, and smaller characters appear as ideals, histories, and metaphors (the ghost of Ted Kennedy; Nikola Tesla; a mysterious figure named Dr. Doomsday; a childhood acquaintance nicknamed Tin Can Head) Farmer also captures huge implications and perspectives within even the shortest sections.
One of the better examples of this is the chapter "Family Portrait," which consists of three sentences: "Dad scattered the seeds. I ran the forest barefoot. Brother torched the trees." This chapter can be taken literally, with seeds scattered, pushed down, and eventually destroyed after growth. But the family dynamics hint at wonderful metaphors. Scattered seeds can indicate human procreation; running barefoot can mean escape; and torching can be a metaphor for destroying one's heritage and path. Within these three sentences, Farmer offers multiple interpretations, spanning family relationships and a larger picture, one that humanizes the patriarchy in a realistic fashion.
Industrialization becomes more explicit as the book goes on. While there's balance and separation, at times the industrial takeover of rural places is mapped out. Farmer doesn't offer judgments, but uses powerful descriptions to evoke the sadness and coldness of the contemporary world:
The day goes sideways against memories of home, against commitments, against this broken moment of nature. A new mall will buy this slab of prairie dreams for twice the going rate. The movie theater says they'll take these acres for midnight multiplex showings of the latest 3-D slasher releases. I wait on the freeway, going nowhere but looking straight ahead.
Religion and spirituality are guiding forces as well, but not in easy ways. There are references to Christian imagery (mustard seeds, for example), followed by "Farmageddon," a closing chapter with various farewells to places, objects, and the American Dream, alongside mentions of astrological signs and the wonderful description of "God's cutting room floor." Despite these farewells, there's a sense of optimism and progression to close the book. Some can read the cutting room floor as finality, and some can read it as a merely hopeful idea cut out in favor of better ones.
In The Farmacist, communities stand still, move, and observe the future with a mixture of fear and eagerness. Ashley Farmer gives equal weight to various potentials and outcomes, and mixes them with careful doses of happiness and nihilism. This slim book, while described as a novella, defies classification, working as fiction with sections that work as poetic stanzas. While multiple classifications can be applied to a variety of books, this feels important to mention in Farmer's world, since no area or person is completely set in stone, and realistically moves from tangible settings to dreams and nightmares in pursuit of an unknown stability. While it's embarrassing to call a work of fiction "a great American novel," The Farmacist hits on complex ideas often attributed to longer, more sprawling works. It shows how, with excellent writing and care, examinations of Americana can contain moments of serious, long thought even in the smallest of packages.