Lucy Ellmann is best-known for Ducks, Newburyport, her ambitious Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, which took the form of one long sentence. (That’s what reviewers said, but there are a few more.) Before that, she wrote very witty, short novels, which I enjoyed: I have searched in vain for my copy of Dot in the Universe, which I want to reread.
Her slim new collection of essays, Things Are Against Us, turned out to be perfect reading for traveling. It is a roller-coaster of a book: Ellmann rages against the machine, targeting sexism, politics, and the obliteration of our planet, in a decidedly personal, feminist, voice. And though she is horrified by our capitalist, male-dominated society, she is also extravagantly, fantastically funny.
In my favorite quirky essay, “The Lost Art of Staying Put,” she lambastes tourism, the horrors of plane travel, and the resulting air pollution. She points out that vacations in distant countries are a huge hassle and mainly a bore. Travelers are competitive with each other. And though it is acknowledged that Post-9/11 travel protocols have upset the airport crews, the passengers also have a bad time.
They’re tired of terrorism too, of having to queue to take their shoes and belts off, of cramming shampoo into 100ml bottles, of forgetting their small change in the Security trays and having their favorite nail scissors confiscated…
(Indeed, travel is unnecessarily stressful: I forgot to take my tablet out of the bag, and then Security sent it back to the beginning of the conveyor belt in its own special box while I waited anxiously.)
Ellmann can be humorous, but she takes a serious tone in her long essay, “Three Strikes,” which was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. Ellmann’s long, often page-long footnotes are mini-essays in themselves.
The media’s harsh treatment of Mary Beard, Greta Thurmberg, and others shows the high level of hostility directed at women whose achievements single them out from the crowd. This, after the centuries it took us to get the vote! This, after people have died to protect abortion rights! After governments have finally recognized the injustice of female circumcision! What did all these struggles mean?
Ellman would be an exceptionally good movie critic. In “A Spell of Patriarchy,” she analyzes Ingrid Bergman’s role as a psychoanalyst in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Spellbound. I haven’t seen this film, but apparently Bergman’s character is sexually harassed throughout. She falls in love with her patient, the troublesome Gregory Peck, and is the only person strong enough to save him.
In “Ah, Men,” Ellmann indignantly criticizes the body-shaming of women and women’s constant apologizing for their shortcomings, while men celebrate violence, are fans of Terminator, commit crimes, go to war, and have destroyed the planet with their pollution-causing machines.
The strident comedy of Ellmann’s male-bashing is especially apparent in “Third-Rate Zeros,” in which she fulminates against Trump. In this comical, angry, well-constructed essay, she gradually shifts from criticism of Trump to a skewering of conventions of female beauty, as defined by men (Trump among them). Many of us ignore these standards, but I agree that the depilation and plastic surgery have gone beyond all sanity. There are many, many waxing scenes in sitcoms (Sex and the City, Better Things, Casual, etc.), and though the characters scream with pain, these scenes are supposed to be funny. They promote extreme depilation.
Ellmann has written a raucous, enjoyable book. I find it refreshing to read over-the-top broadsides in this over-the-top age we live in. Many women writers are still apologetic, even when they fight for a cause, because they worry about alienating their audience. Ellman doesn’t worry about that. Her bracing voice and galvanizing honesty are welcome.