Book Review : Ashley Farmer - The Women (2016)
When it comes to books that shatter genre boundaries and walk a fine line between art objects, fictional narratives, poetry, and literary performance, no indie press does it quite like Civil Coping Mechanisms. This year, CCM has surprised me twice with books that are bizarre hybrids. The first time was with Gary J. Shipley's You With Your Memory Are Dead, which was born during a two-week stretch the author spent locked in a room with E. Elias Merhige'sdark/gory/silent/experimental film Begotten playing on a loop. The second time was with a book more of its time but equally strange and impressive, Ashley Farmer's The Women.
What Farmer set out to do with The Women is easy to understand: she Googled a variety of women-related phrases and processed the results. However, the project gained depth, richness, and merit along the way; it became something more, something unique and much stronger than just the normal/ugly/strange/misogynistic/etc. results offered by the search engine:
"Using the first seven pages of search results as raw material, I sought to collage and reconfigure what I found. While this project began with a concept, it is not conceptual. Instead, I found value in not simply copying-and-pasting these findings but in actively chopping up, stitching together, and writing through the texts. Through this process, the Google results that might have simply washed over me in the past acquired new meaning."
Farmer digested the internet's most "popular" views on women and the result is a book that simultaneously acts like a mirror of our society and a sad, hilarious, and very smart survival guide. There is a crucial space between real women and the constructed, homogenized consumers companies want them to be, a huge divide between the perfect housewife all women should aim to be and the real individuals who have to constantly press their uniqueness against that dumb monster. This is the space this book inhabits. The words here are not regurgitated Google results, they are a study of the spaces women occupy in and out of themselves, in and out of mainstream media, in and out of politics, and in and out of the floating signifier that is womanhood. Farmer deals with all of it in ways that go from humorous to scathing, and not knowing what she'll do next is just one of the pleasures of reading The Women. I give you Clean Women as the perfect example:
"The clean young wife greeted her husband tearfully on his return. Her fragrance evoked the simplest pleasures, their best moments. She was dressed up but natural, her clothes well kept and her hair. It was Friday and she only had to brush aside a worry: the government invading her body."
The Women is short and powerful and thus almost demands to be read in a single sitting. However, there are things in it that linger, messages that stick around in your brain and whisper about their own meaning until a second reading is inevitable ("Most women know something you don't."). This second reading shouldn't be denied. Farmer took the jokes, truths, cliches, and monsters Google offered her and she deconstructed them before putting them together again in a new way, using a new microscope to analyze everything, and using poetry as glue to keep the whole thing together. Her (re)constructions are mandatory reading.