The rant is Lucy Ellmann’s forte. Exasperated, indignant, disgusted, her narrators (first- and third-person) work themselves up into a fine fettle, spouting cascading tirades on everything from the moon landing and tea cosies to people who prefer plastic cutting boards over the wooden kind. They are all in CAPS, with many, many exclamation marks. Although some of these fulminators (the obese and glowering Jen in Doctors & Nurses, for instance) are more bitter than others (the heartbroken and multiply reincarnated Dot of Dot in the Universe), Ellmann’s novels are saved from harshness by an essential sweetness. All that her characters really want in the end is love: sexual love in particular, but really just love.
What happens if they get it? So much of the charm of Ellmann’s eccentric take on the world lies in the common ground it makes with the equally frustrated reader; who among us, after all, hasn’t vainly yearned to love and be loved? In Ellmann’s latest novel, Mimi, her narrator, Harrison Hanafan, starts out in that unsatisfied state, having just broken up with a spectacularly narcissistic arts administrator called Gertrude. Harry sprains his ankle on the street on Christmas Eve, is helped to his feet by a “wacko broad”, rescues a stray cat named Bubbles and happily ensconces himself in his New York City apartment where he recuperates by making lists. The items include his ex’s flaws (“She balls my socks, though I repeatedly begged her not to”) and things he finds ”melancholy” (puppetry, unpredictable air fares, Bach’s solo cello suites).
Choleric lists are another of Ellmann’s trademarks, but apart from his enumeration of reasons for breaking up with Gertrude, Harry’s lists are mild-mannered. He’s as contented as a clam, holed up with Bubbles, a Bette Davis DVD collection to alphabetise and an open-ended excuse to stay home from work. He becomes downright ecstatic when the public-speaking coach he hires to help him with a graduation speech turns out to be the wacko broad who hauled his ass off a frozen city sidewalk. The two commence a blissed-out romance. She is the Mimi of the novel’s title, a middle-aged, dottily feminist raconteur who seems not unlike Ellmann herself.
Mimi then recounts Harry’s own unfolding feminist enlightenment, not that he has terribly far to go in that direction, given that one of the few scenes we get of him at work has him coming to the aid of an abused little girl and tenderly attempting to reassure a mother who’s afraid her son will be embarrassed by her obesity. This is where we run into one of the novel’s monumental improbabilities, because Harry – good-natured, easy-going, somewhat retiring Harry – is supposed to be a Manhattan plastic surgeon. In real life, this breed is uniformly driven and terrifying, and I would also bet serious money that no plastic surgeon has ever lived in a flat over a button shop on West 37th Street (although it must be said that Ellmann perfectly captures the shabby, nebulous oddity of that New York neighbourhood).
The Mimi-Harry romance proceeds swimmingly, but it also sweeps before it much of the novel’s initial, mercurial appeal. Harry, despite a propensity for making bad puns, is good company when he’s wry and wary, reminiscing on the phone with his beloved sister, Bee, a sculptor labouring away at an under-appreciated artist-in-residency programme in Canterbury. Bee works up a couple of good rants herself, on the subject of Angela Banner’s Ant & Bee books. Harry’s Seinfeldian ruminations on the deficiencies of bathrobes (“The belt never stays tied”) and the allure of bulldozers are strangely endearing. Even the praises he sings to Bubbles go down pretty smoothly. But once Harry’s enamoured (sex-drunk, uxorious, besotted) with Mimi, the novel begins to drag.
Mimi natters on about matriarchal prehistory, sounding like a comic-book version of Mary Daly: “Everything was going swell, you know, matriarchy worked! Then men took over metalworking and used it to make more and more powerful weapons … from then on it was just rape, rape, rape, war, war, war, capitalism, arrogance, slavery and wrecking the land.” Harry finds this pontificating arousing, perhaps because Mimi doesn’t blame him for any of man’s wrongs, and because she thinks the best solution is to have lots and lots of orgasms.
That’s all very well for Harry, but the reader, sans erotic compensation, can’t help but notice that his “feisty gal” talks a good amount of wishful, half-baked nonsense. (“Gal”, “swell”: the characters in Mimi sound more like people in a 1930s screwball comedy than today’s Manhattanites.) When Harry and Mimi are separated, and he finds himself reeling in the wake of one of the more virulent forms of modern misogyny, he graduates beyond the compliant stage of Mimiolatry into fully-fledged ideological discipleship. This culminates in his big speech, which he turns into a preliminary manifesto of what he calls “the Odalisque Revolution”. The speech causes a sensation and goes viral.
Much of what Harry has to say is true. Yes, “women are killed every day by some man or another while we yawn and turn to the sports page”. But the novel treats such statements, and Harry’s remedy (“GIVE WOMEN THE MONEY”), as unprecedented and incisive, rather than the woolly-headed stuff of countless undergraduate bull sessions. Given that Ellmann includes the full, formal text of the Odalisque Manifesto in the novel’s appendix, apparently she does, as well. It’s as if the entire feminist political movement (not to mention such witty, fiery, contemporary manifestations as the blogs Jezebel and Feministing, which often come across as Ellmannesque) had never existed. Happiness, it turns out, makes the Ellmann protagonist a bit of a bore.
• Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book is published by Little, Brown.
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