Elizabeth Ellen's new collection Fast Machine is billed in some of its promotional materials as an "anthology." And even though it's written by just one woman, that label makes sense. It's a dense little brick of a book whose insides have been chopped up into dozens of short stories, many no longer than a paragraph. The stories all feel taut and inwardly focused. The women in these stories—and they are, with very few notable exceptions, women—range in age from childhood through middle age. Some of them are from relatively comfortable backgrounds (at least, comfortable enough to be sent to boarding school) and others are addicts who live in filthy squats.
Though there's no way Machine could be read as the story of one woman, the whole thing builds into something like a catalog of a single fractured psyche, or a life story shoved into a kaleidoscope and shot through with a million multicolored rays of light. The characters all share the same vocabulary of experiences from the end of the 20th century (Purple Rain, Johnny Carson, Natural Born Killers, Judy Blume) and the stories are all more or less told in variations on Ellen's between-the-eyes prose. Here's one woman trying to keep her man by shooting nude photos of herself: "Knees in varying degrees of apartness. I took thirty-three pictures, deleted twenty-nine." Here's a woman trying to lose her man:
He calls her name again; he screams it over and over through the glass. He pounds both fists on the door. He does all the things men in movies do to make their wrath known to the women who have wronged them while we do what women in movies do when the men who once professed to love them suddenly want to kill them: we don't move, we stay silent and wait for him to go away. Eventually, he does.
The first sentence of "Fistful" could practically sit accusingly on the page as a story of its own: "I was eight months pregnant with a black eye." The men who figure in Machine are either manipulative monsters or distant objects of affection (as in "How I Stopped Loving Dave Eggers and Stole Your MFA," a confessional story about the narrator's groupie-like obsession with the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius at the birth of the McSweeney's phenomenon). But the men are never the point.
You don't get to see this side of womanhood very often in fiction—tough, and bitter, and unashamed—and it requires something intensive like Fast Machine, a deep, repetitive series of brutal inquiries, to uncover those kinds of secrets. What Ellen is doing here is going deep inside herself and coming back with something small and glistening and vulnerable cradled in her hands. She's offering it to you. You should take it.