A Raucous Voice: “Things Are Against Us,” by Lucy Ellmann

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.

She writes:

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. 

What We’re Reading: Anne Bronte & Lucy Ellmann

Anne Bronte

This is a month for reading long books.  I decided this when I learned January 17 is the bicentenary of Anne Bronte’s birthday.  How could I skip that celebration?   Naturally, I am rereading Anne.  She wrote just two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, so this is easier than you might think. Somewhere I have a collection of the  poems.  Too bad there isn’t more.

I am also reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the behemoth of a novel that won the 2019 Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and the Saltire  Award.  The critics were uniformly reverent:  “It is experimental!  It is the women’s Ulysses!  It is one long 1,000-page sentence!”

 Somehow it’s not like that.  It is quite accessible if you enjoy stream-of consciousness. The narrator is an American housewife, buoyantly musing on Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Long Winter, Doctor Zhivago, Trump, abortion rights, her expensive dough-kneading machine, baking cinnamon rolls and pies, choosing crudités for a cocktail party, her son’s preference for yellow crayons, her daughter’s disapproval of her sweatpants, her inability to get handymen to fix the washer on the faucet, the sad fact that they went broke when she had cancer, and much more. I’m sure she gets less buoyant at some point, but there is plenty of humor.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but I am reading Ducks with the same fascination I have for women’s magazines. The housewife’s musings could easily be published in Good Housekeeping, Redbook, McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal–if there were periods instead of commas and these magazines all existed!

And when I say that, I mean it as a good thing. I have very much enjoyed what I’ve read so far.  I think many other women would like it, too, even if they’re not fans of experimental novels.

More on this later.

Gifts under the Tree: Books, of Course!

Merry Christmas!   

We’ve opened our gifts, and we’re feeling jolly.  Well, of course we are.  We picked out our own books, so everything is perfect.  I now have a copy of Lucy Ellmann’s controversial novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which won the Goldsmiths Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.   And I have begun Eleanor Fitzsimons’s well-reviewed new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which is very good indeed.

I’m sure you have heard of Ellmann’s novel, which is 1,000 pages long, published by a small press, and written in one sentence from the point-of-view of an American housewife.  The critics love it.  I hope I will.

My favorite book as a chld.

You may not be familiar with E. Nesbit (1858-1924), who was best-known for her children’s fantasy novels.  When I was a child she was my favorite writer, so my sensible mother gave me her books for Christmas and birthdays.  I read these books over and over from the ages of 10-12.  The Enchanted Castle was my favorite.

Although I didn’t know it then, Nesbit also wrote for adults. You can very cheaply buy an e-book edition of her Complete Works, which contains all her adult books as well as the children’s books. Nesbit is undergoing a revival:   Penelope Lively selected Nesbit’s delightful adult novel The Lark for the Penguin Women Writers’ series in 2018.  Furrowed Middlebrow has also published an American edition of The Lark.   And for those of you who love trivia, Nesbit and her circle were thinly-veiled characters in A. S. Byatt’s Booker-shortlisted novel, The Children’s Book.  

I am loving Fitzsimon’s biography, because Nesbit was absolutely fascinating and very “progressive.”  She was a Fabian socialist who hung out with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other famous writers; she was willing to write anything, from newspaper articles to books, to support her unemployable husband, Hubert Bland, along with their five children, Hubert’s mistress, and his two children with her.

Well, enough about my good books!  I love the bio, and will start the Ellmann soon.

Have a Contented Christmas! 

Can a Book Prize Controversy Sell “Ducks, Newburyport”? 

I have nothing against award-winning books, but I try to use my time wisely.

That said, I am considering reading Lucy Ellmann’s experimental novel, Ducks, Newburyport,  which won the Goldsmiths Prize recently and was shortlisted both for the Booker Prize and the Saltire Society literary Award in Scotland.  It is on my Christmas gift “shortlist,” mainly  because of Parul Sehgal’s dazzling review in The New York Times.

 A literary prize “scandal” has put me off, though.

Lesley McDowell, a judge for the Saltire Society literary award, resigned from a panel of five judges because Lucy Ellmann’s novel did not win.  Three of the judges voted against Ducks, Newburyport, two for it. McDowell believes it was a sexist decision.  According to The Guardian, she is indignant that the prize went to Ewan Morrison’s Nina X, a novel by a man writing from the  point-of-view of a woman.  She insists Ellmann’s Ducks is a “masterpiece” by a woman from a woman’s point of view.

And so the judges disagreed.  Is that a big deal?

Has any small-press novel garnered as much attention this year as Ellmann’s novel?  That indicates the book is well-respected, and that the writer has powerful friends.  This  1,000-page novel, told from the point-of-view of an Ohio housewife, apparently in only one sentence, is available at my local Barnes and Noble.  I glanced at it:  it is very accessble.

Our own favorite small-press author, the late Stephen Dixon, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1991 for his experimental novel, FrogThe Baltimore Press described the 769-page book as follows: “Composed of 21 chapters — each with the word “Frog” in the title — it tells the story of a nondescript, middle-aged man named Howard Tetch and his family, moving back and forth in time countless times, recasting events from different perspectives.”  He did not win.  Sounds like Dixon and Ellmann had some things in common.

McDowell claims that not all the Saltire Society judges finished Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel.  Again, I may be in Cloud Cuckooland, but this sounds like a smart move.  If the judges dislike a book after, say, 30-50 pages, is it likely they will change their mind on page 1,000?  And how do the judges find the time to read all of these books?  Don’t they need a sane process of elimination?  (You see, I am far too pragmatic for the world of award politics!)

From what I’ve heard, Ducks, Newburyport is not for everybody.  I am interested in it, but I hate award “scandals”:  the Nobel Prize scandal last year, a judge for the International Booker Prize resigning when Philip Roth, our great American writer, won, and on and on.

 Perhaps literary prize scandals sell books.  Alas, they depress me.

The fact that Ellmann’s small-press novel won one award (the Goldsmiths Prize) is astonishing!