The nature of things

Ellmann lambastes the patriarchy with verve and gusto in gutsy new essay collection


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Is “essays” the term to describe Lucy Ellmann’s collection of sharp observations and entertaining tirades, Things Are Against Us? Polemic? Blistering commentary? Political satire?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/09/2021 (322 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Is “essays” the term to describe Lucy Ellmann’s collection of sharp observations and entertaining tirades, Things Are Against Us? Polemic? Blistering commentary? Political satire?

None of these, really. Home truths is closer. The uncomfortable, embarrassing, mortifying truth about ourselves and our performance on this burning planet. But of course saying “our” is just being polite — I mean “men’s.”

The American-born, Edinbugh-based Ellmann is more direct. She lambastes the patriarchy with verve and gusto. The militarist, the capitalist, the deranged scientist, the gun lobbyist all lie strewn across the pages, having received a swift blow to the back of the knees or a cream pie to the face. A reader can luxuriate in her plain speaking. Plain speaking but no explaining for the refreshing Ellmann; she is the mistress of the blunt truth.

I read her 2019 epic, tour de force novel Ducks, Newburyport, in a way I’d never read before, furiously turning pages, ravenous to catch up and mentally exclaiming the whole time: “Sa-aame!! I kno-ow!,” sounding for all the world like a cross between a deranged teen and Mrs. Fawlty on the phone.

It was all recognition, identification, relatability. Here was a writer — at last — mirroring my own experience of the world, of reality now as it comes at us in bits and bytes in the first quarter of the 21st century. All of it. (And who had ever done that before?) She was the postie delivering my every thought, my every response to the world, by snowblower all over my front yard.

Amy Jordison photo
Lucy Ellmann

In Things Are Against Us, Ellmann freely uses the same shtick, compiling her complaints, perceptions, fears, forebodings and outrage into lists that carry her reader on a white-water ride. “They seem almost innocent to me, my scruples and my scorn,” she confides wistfully before the book has even truly begun, “now that the whole human experiment is drawing to a close,” then continues with cheerful fortitude, “Still, let’s complain.”

Those three words announce the tone of the collection — non-academic, direct. They set her stance as their author — woman-to-woman. She is our cut-the-crap commentator with an important job to do, and we are not going to go down in this male-engendered mess without a fight. “Table of Discontents,” declares the next page.

The 14 pieces that comprise Ellmann’s discontents, vividly illustrated by Diana Hope, muster all of her comic powers in the service of her home truths. How much further along might we be now in the work of dismantling the patriarchy, if only feminists had refused to adopt (as they did) the pernicious academic practice of inventing their own incomprehensible language? What if they had instead sustained a healthy practice of plain speaking?

Their books continue to be stuffed with the jargon du jour. But do any of them make the case for stripping men of power as forcefully as: “Who invented the goddamm atomic bomb?” (Not to mention “genocide, totalitarianism, whaling, rugby and snuff movies”?)

Ellmann never pulls her punches and the best ones (“MEN HAVE RUINED LIFE ON EARTH”) turn out to be irrefutable.

Diana Hope illustration / supplied

Things may be couched in everyday language, but it is far from naïve. Ellmann has an entire kitchen drawer of sharp implements to carve up her subjects — though it’s likely she’d object to the violence of the metaphor. The device of the list, in Ellmann’s hands, achieves reliable results: “Men delight in unauthorized violence, but glory in legalized murder too… Give them a big grim death-promoting system they can glom onto, a male heirarchy that provides them with goals, loyalty, doom, destruction, epaulettes, good opportunities for rape, a general miasma of testosterone, a guaranteed pass on domesticity, and a stage for showy acts of heroism, and they’re happy as clams.”

Those “epaulettes” are there for good reason. Ellmann’s writing is always tighter than it pretends. The epaulettes perform a double function; they make you laugh and then they make you think, seriously.

Likewise, the word “Monopoly” is a comic ending to a list of male pastimes (“witch hunts, war, rape, drug cartels…”) until you remember that Monopoly is exactly what is being played in real life in our towns and communities.

Ellmann is entertaining, funny, loopy and brave, but, importantly, she’s empowering. You remember that you’re not alone. You wake up again to echoes everywhere — Harry Patch (look him up) calling war “legalized mass murder”; the Sept. 11 New York Times piece by Maureen Dowd, entitled Manning Up, Letting Us Down.

It’s good to know Ellmann is keeping her formidable comic weaponry trained on the people who got us into this pig show, “this great big radioactive cowpat of Growth and Progress and Pointlessness they’ve deposited everywhere,” because the patriarchy is still, as we burn, choosing growth, choosing consumption, competition, expansion, extraction, destruction — choosing to f— things up.

Pauline Holdstock is a novelist, short fiction writer and essayist living on Vancouver Island.

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