Is Lucy Ellmann serious? On the one hand, yes, very. The novel she published before this collection of essays was the Booker-shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, which relayed the internal life of an Ohioan mother of four via a single sentence across 1,000 pages. Her publisher tells me that between the proof and final publication of Things Are Against Us, Ellman made 1,700 changes. She is, in short, an undoubted paragon of highbrow meticulousness.
Then again and on the other hand, no, Ellmann is not being serious at all here. Things consists mostly of pieces written before the pandemic but is nonetheless influenced by the plague world into which it emerges, reacting against solemnity with provocation. She supplies her own epigraph:
“In times of pestilence, my fancy turns to shticks. They seem almost innocent to me, my scruples and my scorn, now that the whole human experiment seems to be drawing to a close.
It has, not a table of contents, but a ‘table of discontents’.
The things with which Ellmann is discontented range from bras (‘Breasts are detainees — tracked, branded, interrogated, maligned, discouraged, and “supported’’’) to Brexit (‘the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred’). She is angry about electricity, which she calls ‘a kind of ethereal rapist, interfering with everyone’. She is annoyed that men eat so much pizza (‘just a big hot slippery blop of dough’), but also that people expend attention on healthy eating: ‘So much time is devoted to the self, there’s none left for society. Americans count the calories, not the capitalists.’
She is furious about the pervasiveness of travel: ‘You don’t have to poo and pee and copulate and take snapshots of well-known landmarks in every country on Earth, you know? It’s not the law,’ she writes in ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put’. But she must be a tourist herself, because she is also pretty irritated by the general unpleasantness of being on planes, with ‘the little reading light and the fake fan overhead. The suck-you-uppo toilets, the blazing TV screens’.
In the title essay, which opens the collection, she details (with exuberant use of capitals) her fury with every single thing in existence:
“THINGS don’t stay put. THINGS are never the right way up. THINGS get mouldy, THINGS break, THINGS drip, THINGS make odd noises, THINGS inexplicably collapse, THINGS move around in the night! THINGS get untidy. It is so hard to keep THINGS in order.
Dried herbs are among the many items to enrage her: ‘Thyme leaves are extremely punitive THINGS.’ She concludes that ‘A kind of violence is done to us by THINGS all the time’.
All of this is, at least in part, an act, and a very accomplished one. She has the spiky wit of Nora Ephron, although Ellmann would perhaps not be flattered bya comparison with the mistress of romcoms, given her thoughts on genre fiction (it is, she says, ‘a cop-out’ in all its forms). Things is also extremely fun. Ellmann, despite emphatically not being a columnist, has availed herself of the columnist’s charter: the right to take any number of trivially contradictory positions, purely for the pleasure of taking them.
She has range as well as flair, and within this carnival of apocalypse, there are a couple of fine pieces of criticism. ‘A Spell of Patriarchy’ examines Hitchcock’s Spellbound from the perspective of the Ingrid Bergman character (Ellmann calls it ‘a #MeToo movie from 75 years ago’, which is a reading I’ll buy), while ‘The Woman of the House’ revisits Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, combining the affection in which Ellmann-the-child holds the books with the respect that Ellmann-the-adult has for a fellow author.
Significantly, Ingalls Wilder made her subject female life, just as Ellmann has. ‘Nobody knows what feminism is any more, but it isn’t just about equal pay and abortion rights,’ grouses Ellmann (correctly). ‘It’s about appreciating femaleness for femaleness’s sake.’ And this is a feminist book. The thing she is outraged about above all is men:
“Men have wrecked everything of beauty and cultivated everything putrid on the face of the Earth. Not all men, of course, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’m generalising. But it’s for a good cause: sanity.
Politically, this book is the hyperbolic sibling to the work of the feminist economist Katrine Marçal. Like her, Ellmann wants to expose society’s dependence on female labour and force us to confront ourselves as the vulnerable beings we are — before we destroy the world on which we rely. She even has a plan for this. Men should ‘hand over the money. Transfer all wealth into female control. Not half of it, not 52 per cent either — ALL THE MONEY.’ Is she serious? Not at all, and more than anyone has ever been.