As all you literary types know, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize.
It is described in various places as, ‘ …1020 pages with 95% of the book made up of eight near endless sentences, ‘(The Guardian) ‘…a torrent of consciousness and intoxicating coziness…’ (Amazon) ‘a brave, unique, ambitious book…’ (Goodreads)
None of this appealed to me, but I thought I should at least read something by Lucy Ellmann to see what the fuss was all about.
I chose Mimi, published in 2013, written in the voice of Harrison Hanafan, a plastic surgeon laid up with a broken ankle. When I got it home, I discovered a heart stuck on the spine, a device used by my library to indicate books about romantic love. Could this be right? Wasn’t Lucy Ellmann an intellectual, daughter of the famous biographer Richard Ellmann and winner for her first book Sweet Desserts of the 1988 Guardian Fiction Prize?
But as I read on, I realized that this book is a love story. A story indeed about life-changing besotted love. Mimi is the object of this life changing passion, encountered when Harrison Hanafan slips on snow and needs help to get a taxi in the busy Christmas streets of New York.
While Harrison is laid up, and before he becomes obsessed with Mimi, we have a chance to get to know him. We learn about his passion for playing the piano, for cataloguing, for old movies, for the music of Bach, his sister Bee. We hear about the unsatisfactory girlfriend, Gertrude, he is trying to escape from, we learn quite a bit about his childhood. Here he is on the subject of Ant and Bee, children’s books that seem to have affected him deeply,
…Ant and Bee and the Rainbow, and One, Two Three with Ant and Bee…I realized I’d always sort of associated my sister Bee with Angela Banner’s Bee…Bee’s the sensible one, almost parental, the one who holds everything together while Ant gets himself into scrapes. Bee knows what time it is, for instance, when to go to bed….Bee’s always telling Ant what to do, and he’s always right.’
Now, however, Bee, an artist and sculptor, is living in England, and Harrison has to use the telephone to discuss his life and behaviour with her. I found the first part of this novel, before Harrison finds Mimi again and their all-consuming passion takes off, the most enjoyable. The lists, capitals, changing fonts so characteristic of Ellmann’s writing are amusing to begin with. Here is just one of Harrison’s lists,
WHY I HATE BATHROBES
- The belt never stays tied.
- Often an old Kleenex in the pocket.
- They’re always too hot.
- And frequently tartan.
- Remind me of slippers.
- Or of men lounging around in Sears catalogs. Next page: a billion socks.
- Reminiscent of oddly formal occasions in childhood-Christmas and sleepovers-when pj’s are for some reason deemed not enough.
I could even relate to Harrison’s qualms about being a plastic surgeon whose clients are mainly women who want to improve their bodies to please the men in their lives. Although we never see him in the operating theatre. All he seems to do is interview women and then knock them back because of his moral qualms.
He is therefore ripe to meet and fall for Mimi, who is of the opinion that all evil in the world is wrought by the male of the species. From the moment he sees her bare breast and likens her to Delacroix’s Liberty he is gone, and, for me, so is this novel.
There is still a compelling and moving sub plot about his sister Bee, but the relationship with Mimi devours the more subtle moments. from their continual and totally fulfilling sex, to Mimi’s constant pronouncements, about fans, and the menopause, the iniquities of men, and it is downhill all the way from there to Harrison’s ridiculous speech at his old school, where he gives a radical feminist rave until he is thrown off the stage by security.
In the appendix Ellmann lists, among many unrelated trifles, the Odalisque Manifesto devised by Harrison and Mimi, the promotion of which becomes their life’s work.
The jury is out as to how serious Ellmann is about this philosophy. Some suspect it might be a giant piss-take. But it certainly spoils a book that is great in parts.