Reviewed: Elizabeth Ellen’s Dense, Emotionally Harrowing “Fast Machine”

Fast Machine
by Elizabeth Ellen
Short Flight/Long Drive; 368 p.

The massive collection Fast Machine marks my first introduction to Elizabeth Ellen’s work. Hers is a name I’ve seen before — notably, Mary Miller’s collection Big World earned some comparisons to Ellen’s fiction. And given that Big World fell into the category of books that I felt compelled to distribute among friends of mine come holiday gift-giving time, I was intrigued by the prospect of reading Fast Machine — though less sure of what to expect. There are no easy distinctions made in Ellen’s book, nothing denoting this as “stories” or “essays” or sections that divide up the pieces up by category. That becomes disconcerting after a while: there are sections that are clearly fiction, and there are others that seem clearly memoir; the rest blur the lines, in a way that I assume is entirely by design. What emerges is a thorough exploration of Ellen’s concerns: a portrait of one life sometimes shown through the window of another’s life. One character, a young woman named Erin, shows up in stories throughout the book — meeting her half-sister for the first time in “Halfsies,” the story that closes the collection; spending time at a boarding school in “Winter Haven, Florida, 1984.” There seem to be some parallels between Erin’s fictional life and Ellen’s experiences — though some of that may simply be due to many of Erin’s experiences being narrated from several years later, an older and more experienced perspective that echoes the more mature viewpoint taken by Ellen in the few (assumably) autobiographical pieces here. It also leads to a side benefit of reading this: Ellen’s own perspective on the rise of independent literary magazines in the early ‘00s. In “How I Stopped Loving Dave Eggers And Stole Your MFA,” she provides a window on unexpected pathways to writing in the background of its nestled narratives of literary obsession and hidden identities. (Much like Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, the experience of reading Fast Machine will ring true for many a literary type with an abiding belief in DIY culture.)

Fast Machine intersperses fiction and nonfiction, weaving together longer pieces with shorter ones. For this reader, it was the lengthier works that endured, with the more flash-oriented pieces coming off as more clever than enduring. Though some of the shorter pieces, particularly “Samuel L. Jackson Is Not a Good Name for a Rabbit” and “Carson McCullers Was A Man, or, Marilyn, 1962” dart in, land their point, and leave the reader stinging.

I don’t mean to imply that Fast Machine is something akin to a memoir with fictional refractions. Among the strongest stories here is “Xenia, —-” a reworking of Blake Butler’s “Smoke House.” Here, Ellen is grittily clear where Butler is surreal and allusive, using some of his own imagery to further her preferred themes of faltering familial bonds, emergent sexuality, and economic anxiety. In the end, what endures are the wrenching situations in which Ellen’s characters find themselves, gaps impossible to bridge, relationships that won’t last. Consider Erin’s immeasurably complex interactions with her half-sister in “Halfsies,” the spectral lover in “The Night I Died And Made My Way Into His Bedroom,” and the narrator’s bond with a boyfriend of her mother’s in “What I’ve Been Told With Regard to the Pianist.” The emotional weight of these echoes the density of Fast Machine; it’s a book that leaves you reeling again and again.

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