Elizabeth Ellen’s Fast Machine

There are only four words, repeated twice, on the exterior of Elizabeth Ellen’s Fast Machine, which I just typed. On the back, there is a photograph of the author, clad in a leather jacket, stockings and looking off to her right. She looks like someone (out of frame) has begun a “I have good news and bad news” conversation and they’ve moved on to the bad news. It’s a look of fleeting happiness, trepidation and building rage.

I think this picture is a better summation of Ellen’s work than any blurb or synopsis usually reserved for that space.

Fast Machine is technically a collection of Ellen’s work over the last ten years, but it feels like a novel. The narrators endure abusive mothers, malnutrition and countless father-figures in childhood; premature marriages, alienating boyfriends and nomadic lifestyles in adulthood. Ellen’s characters live in Ohio and Florida. They smoke weed and watch mediocre movies. They masturbate a lot.

That description makes it sound like a livejournal book: angsty, melodramatic but ultimately inconsequential. And at first, I that’s what I thought too. Her story “Period Sex” (which appears early in the collection) seemed like a meandering account of a sexual encounter, told with the same passive detachment as an entertaining Thought Catalog article. Good but without substance. (I also admit to being slightly drunk when I read that one).

“Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” is what sold me. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story so honest to adolescence–the alienation, the self-consciousness, the hurt and the fun–as Ellen’s story of a boarding school. It gave me context for everything else to follow. What I thought was meandering prose became intense confessionals–the kind that connects readers with the mistakes they made in their own youth. It’s such an unflinching account of family history and tragedy that you can’t help but feel a kinship. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fast Machine earned Ellen some stalkers.

Despite how damaged her characters are–from the shit they’ve seen or how they’re treated–there’s a subtle rage inside that keeps you on their side, which I think separates Ellen’s work from a lot of innocuous indie lit. Backed into a corner, this book will snap back.

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