Yemassee Review: "The Farmacist" by Ashley Farmer

Jellyfish Highway Press, Dec. 2015
Paperback: 104 pages, $10.00
Review by Justin Brouckaert

I vaguely remember getting absorbed in a real-time farm simulation game on Facebook during the summer of 2009. It was a strange time: an injury had forced me to quit my summer job, and I used the Internet—both the depths and the shallows—to deal with the resulting depressive funk. It was a quick phase, my interest in the game replaced by indifference when I went back to college in the fall. I worried, before I started reading The Farmacist, that my lack of interest in games like Farm Town might be an obstacle to enjoying the book (or worse, that the book would trigger traumatic memories of forgotten crops). Thankfully, that was not the case.

Ashley Farmer’s The Farmacist is the first release from Jellyfish Highway Press, a new indie headed up by Justin Lawrence Daugherty and Matthew Fogarty. It’s a beautifully designed book, pocket-sized and perfect-bound. I judge books by their covers, and this one looks nice.
Christopher Kennedy describes the book nicely in a blurb as “a meditation on the Facebook game, Farm Town, [that] explores the realm where the ‘real’ world buffets the imagination...The Farmacist is fiction crashing the lyric’s slumber party.”

I find this blend of fiction and the lyric interesting. The Farmacist is labeled a novella, though it reads to me more like a linked collection of prose poems, similar in some ways to I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses—a book that’s labeled “a novel in flash fiction” by Civil Coping Mechanisms.

Of course, these distinctions of genre hardly matter.

The Farmacist skillfully weaves the real world and the world of Farm Town together, to the point that the word “real” becomes, in this context, questioned and disrupted. In “Dear Farm Town,” the book’s opening poem, the speaker admits to a sort of intentional conflation, using the Internet to express the frustrations of powerlessness encountered offline:
There’s a deer in the field, a man in the bed, and I understand (though barely) that someday these comforts will end. So I sign in to conjure a happy ending, and it’s vacant, flat. Yet the orchards I control: so healthy they’re obscene.
And later, in a one-sentence poem called “Daily Lottery”:
Failing at one world means nothing in another.
I read a book like The Farmacist for pleasure—for love of language, for hypnotism and surprise. I also read for character and theme: the speaker is always conscious of this link between Farm Town and the real world, and is frequently at odds with both, comfortable in neither. The pure power of playing God in Farm Town is compounded by the stresses of keeping up:
Sign off to doze? Acres of wheat rot, and your useless animals graze and freeze...You’re the reckless monarch, creating health or wealth or death or whatever. No action irreversible. Feel free to leave. You will return above the earth with you enormous scythe.
The speaker’s frustration with Farm Town reveals a sense of loneliness and displacement, a search for home in a fractured digital world.

“You’re a dream but you’re not; you’re escape that does a piss-poor job of it,” the speaker declares before asking, “Where’s my real home, my real bed, my American Farm Town Dream?”

The Farmacist is a thin book but a deep dive: the language tangles and unravels, snags and shorts and redirects on a whim, replicating the spark-charged power of tormented thought. Farm Town is a front; The Farmacist is a book about technology and the loneliness it inspires; a book about evaluation and re-evaluation of the self; a book about trances and frustration and addiction. It is, perhaps more than anything else, a book about two different worlds blurring into one.

Ashley Farmer is the author of Farm Town (Rust Belt Bindery, 2012) and Beside Myself (PANK/Tiny Hardcore Press, 2014). She lives in Louisville, KY.

Justin Brouckaert’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Passages North, DIAGRAM, Catapult, NANO Fiction, and Smokelong Quarterly. He edits Yemassee.