Lucy Ellmann – Things Are Against Us

Lucy Ellmann’s first collection of essays has been described as ‘excruciatingly funny’, ‘breathlessly brilliant’, ‘comedic genius’… But the trouble with Lucy Ellmann is her humour always seems to use the same devices: CAPITALS, long alliterative lists, anger, denunciation, and this tends to pall after 196 pages. Her book comprises fourteen essays and is almost entirely a rave against modern civilisation and the people who have created it: MEN.

An extract from the title essay is fairly typical

THINGS slip out of your hand. THINGS look solid and steady when in fact they’re wobbly: you step on the THING and you tip off…

THINGS disappoint us. Drawers stick so you can’t get THINGS out of them or into them. Machines conk out. Rugs fade. Clothes shrink…THINGS don’t stay put. THINGS are never the right way up. THINGS get mouldy. THINGS break…

But I’m sure you’ve got the idea. Quite amusing, but it tends to pall after twelve pages. As a general rave against everything it reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up, ‘What is it about THINGS’, I can hear him say. But Ellmann goes on far longer than he ever would.

In her second essay, Three Strikes, she takes Virgina Woolf”s essay Three Guineas as inspiration for a heavily footnoted castigation of the world created by men. The three strikes she recommends are to be employed by women to wrest control from men. They are a housework strike, a labour strike and a sex strike. This echoes the Odalisque Manifesto in her novel Mimi where the main character, a plastic surgeon, falls in love with Mimi a radical anti-male activist and makes a ludicrous denunciation of men in a public speech.

In other essays she lashes out at bras, electricity, flight, detective fiction and, did I say, MEN?

The only slightly generous and approving essay is about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie novels. Ellmann in several essays yearns for a time before electricity and has a fairly rosy view of life as described in these novels.

She of course has some harsh things to say about the ex-president of the USA, but no matter how much she admires him, she is not the next Thomas Bernhard. Now there was someone who could denounce without being boring.

Not particularly recommended, unless you are a woman in a very bad mood with the males in your life. And it might only make THINGS worse

28 thoughts on “Lucy Ellmann – Things Are Against Us

  1. Forewarned is … forewarned. Thanks. I feel the spirit of e e cummings moving me, but not in a good way:

    “i carry your charges with me
    (i carry guilt in my heart)
    i am never without guilt
    (anywhere i go it goes, ellman);
    and whatever is done
    by any man is my doing, i gather … “

    1. Yes he is the opposite of Lucy Ellmann with his love of lower case. And he did say
      ‘…and whatever is done
      by only me is your doing, my darling,’ The guilt is mutual…

  2. Think I’ll skip this one Gert. I hate complainers. She could get off her derrière and do something about it, if she’s so unhappy.

    1. Interesting. Most of the reviews I’ve read have been quite favourable. Her father was a Joyce scholar and I think she has been bitten by that particular bug. As one who is at present reading Ulysses I can see how that could have a really bad effect on one’s writing.

      1. I didn’t mean to imply necessarily that the reviews were bad, only that the discussion made it pretty clear to me that Ellman’s essay collection was probably not something I’d like.
        Very interesting about her father the Joyce scholar! I can definitely see the influence.
        I’ll be very interested to read your take on Ulysses. Joyce has been a mountain too far for me, at least until this stage of my life (I’m going to give him another go in a year or two). Proust I could handle (actually ended up loving Remembrance) but Joyce to date has been another matter entirely.

        1. I am heading for Proust as my task for next year. After Ulysses I think it will be a breeze. Joyce’s shorter fiction might appeal; Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Although I have come to hate Stephen Dedalus after reading Ulysses.

                  1. Can’t find any mention of it, on a fairly quick search. Ezra Pound helped him out a lot, but I didn’t see any mention of a poetic influence. On the other hand, the Japanese have quite liked Joyce, and found him a kindred spirit.

                    1. I think we read recently that Finnegan’s Wake was translated into Chinese. The mind boggles. But here is a beautiful little sentence from p 573, the second last chapter.
                      ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’

          1. Now I’m curious about Stephen Dedalus! I’ve actually tried Portrait twice, with no success. My last attempt was many years ago, and there’s been a lot of books floating under the bridge since then, so to speak, so I’ll probably try it at least once more. I have read Dubliners, again many years ago and intend to read it again in the next few years.
            I think you are correct in thinking that Proust won’t be as difficult as Ulysses! I really loved Remembrance, when I finally sat down to it (in contrast to a colleague, who found it excruciating). I read the more modern translation, where each volume had a different translator (Lydia Davis did Swann’s Way; can’t remember the others). I’ve thought of reading the older, Moncrieff translation as well but — so many books, so little time! It took me about ten months to get through it, but I had a fairly intense job at the time and limited amounts of time/energy to spare for anything else.

            1. I have the Scott Moncrieff books which are delightful little blue books, twelve in number, so I can read one per month. The translation may be a bit dated now, but the books are very appealing. Other Gert has of course read it in French.

  3. Somehow, I don’t think that this is for me. I can see how the frequent capitalisation of key words THING would get VERY ANNOYING after a while!

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