“All of life is pandemonium. With plague in our midst, everything feels like an emergency. I’m jittery, can’t tolerate the least upset. So what else is new? In times of pestilence, my fancy turns to schticks. They seem almost innocent to me, my scruples and my scorn, now that the whole human experiment seems to be drawing to a close. Still, let’s complain.”
And I am in. Forget the snippy, small kind of squalling – irate tweets sent to supermarkets, mumbling under the breath. Those aren’t satisfying at all.
This here is criticism with a bit of body. It’s fibrous. Chewy. Reading it, I feel like I’m in the company of a gesticulating city sidewalk sage (Fran Leibowitz is referenced) with a pinch of unimpressed Scot.
What irritates the author most about today’s society gets its assessment, from crime writers – “in it for the money” – to YouTube vlogging ‘Morning Routine Girls’ – “their resolutely pally personas are perfect avatars of capitalism”.
I wince at some of this (I will defend peppering a sentence with ‘like’, for it’s not without function) but was swept along in the book’s spirit of catharsis.
I screamed a little when I turned a page to see a sentence describing two writers as the Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse of Scottish letters (I won’t spoil the moment). There’s also a bit of proper textual analysis of the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
And of travel? “Columbus, along with his overt sadism, managed inadvertently to transport to the ‘New World’ worms, rats, smallpox, chickenpox, typhus, scarlet fever, leprosy, malaria, whooping cough, gonorrhoea, TB, and the bubonic plague. He picked up potatoes, tobacco, and syphilis on his way out. A real import-export kind of guy, he unified the world with mutual catastrophes. Thanks a bunch.”
Ellmann’s complaints are cathartically honest, but not cruel – and that’s an important difference. Themes include looking witheringly at the patriarchy – “wild ejaculations of respect for testicles spill willy nilly across the globe” – feminism, and environmentalism. Even when she rails against electricity, it’s so entertaining, I’m half-convinced to cut off my supply.