LUCY Ellmann’s favoured mode is a rollicking stream-of-consciousness powered by wide-eyed shock at the ludicrous state of things.
Bloomsbury Circus, £12.99
This moral outrage is frequently expressed by a protagonist at breaking point: one who has achieved clarity regarding our catastrophic condition, but cannot make this understood by wider society, due to the fact that with clarity has arrived a kind of madness.
But even as Ellmann’s characters boil over with indignation and bafflement, they often find continued hope or at least stimulation through love and sex – the mysteries that keep us from giving up, the miracles out of which even her cynical, hyper-erudite protagonists cannot intellectualise themselves.
Ellmann’s great skill rests in finding the joy in horror and the horror in joy. What keeps us going in the face of sorrow, humiliation and the daily news? Wry laughter at our own collective absurdity; sensual pleasure; unexpected kinship with fellow humans. At her best – try 2003’s brain-meltingly brilliant Dot In The Universe – Ellmann is an extraordinary, laugh-out-loud hybrid of philosopher, pornographer, storyteller and sage, capable of observations at once satisfyingly familiar in their deep resonance and stingingly original in their expression. You can’t be both clever and content, says the Ellmann credo, but you can be clever and turned on, pissed off, aware, alive.
So far, so fabulous. We need this woman; and in a world of Barneses and McEwans churning out bitter Booker-baiting treatises on their fear of women and the working class, she doesn’t get her due. But there is a downside, which comes into play in Mimi. In common with many artists with distinct and recognisable voices, she tends to construct characters who are mostly mouthpieces for a mode of expression that’s alike in every book.
You know how every protagonist of a Woody Allen film is unavoidably Woody Allen? Ellmann is a sharper observer of things than he’ll ever be, but she can get similarly stuck in a single voice; and here it proves more than a little unconvincing, given the rest of what we’re supposed to buy about her leading man. He is Harrison Hanafan, successful Manhattan plastic surgeon, whose whirlwind love affair with the big-boned, big-mouthed, perfectly imperfect Mimi transforms him into not just a feminist, but a female supremacist so radical that he ultimately constructs a manifesto for the transfer of all economic power from the grasping claws of men into the capable and loving hands of women. His shift in perspective is also informed by the sudden death of his beloved artist sister Bee at the hands of a serial killer.
By paying attention to the lives of Bee and Mimi, Harrison comes to understand his own part in the evil that men do. And yes, that’s men, not mankind: according to Harrison’s new viewpoint, responsibility for human badness rests squarely with the male of the species. Bee’s murder becomes representative of “the whole world of women wronged, burned, beaten, badgered and bereft.” A result of the social conditioning of men, or of innate destructive misogyny?
Harrison’s response to witnessing what he calls the “rape” of a female duck by a group of drakes implies the latter. Nature, not just society, runs on sexual inequality. Like Valerie Solanas, the 1960s feminist writer who declared maleness to be “a deficiency disease”, advocated the elimination of men, and is listed in the voluminous acknowledgments with which Ellmann closes Mimi, Harrison sees males as inherently dangerous to females.
Is Ellmann writing about a man who’s seen the light, or one deranged into zealotry by extreme grief? Hard to say. One problem is the challenge of believing that this man was ever a complacent surgeon happily finessing noses and busts. It would be one thing if the book portrayed a convincing transition from one extreme position to its opposite; but Ellmann, not really interested in the old Harrison, has him slide too easily into witty feminist outrage. He just doesn’t sound like the man he’s meant to be.
Then there are Harrison’s arguments. Perhaps some or all of them are also those of the author, perhaps not – but either way, a lot of them are weak. Hand over the world to women? What, like Lynndie England? Margaret Thatcher? Ann Coulter? Anne Widdecombe? Valerie Solanas, who rather violently shot Andy Warhol? Ellmann’s spree killer is clearly in part inspired by Raoul Moat, but she has her version specifically target women, which Moat didn’t, so that he will better fit the book’s overarching theory that male violence charges all around us. It’s a convenient adjustment, and a somewhat disingenuous one. As for those ducks – are we really going to look to nature for evidence of female helplessness? Talk to the nearest lady bear or tiger about that. She probably won’t stop to check your gender before she eats your head.
No harm, of course, in going to extremes for the sake of argument; and Ellmann puts on an enjoyable show in doing so. But she hasn’t done enough to make Harrison seem like a real person; and that makes what purports to be his story seem more like a flimsy structure for an intellectual position that doesn’t stand much analysis.