A new collection of essays castigates the Patriarchate with brio and gusto
Is “essays” the term to describe Lucy Ellmann’s collection of sharp observations and entertaining tirades, Things are against us? Controversy? Bloated comment? Political satire?
None of these, really. Home truths are closer. The uncomfortable, embarrassing and mortifying truth about ourselves and our performance on this burning planet. But of course to say “our” is just to be polite – I mean “men”.
Ellmann, born in the United States and based in Edinbugh, is more direct. She castigates the patriarchy with brio and brio. The militarist, the capitalist, the deranged scientist, the gun lobbyist are all strewn across the pages, having received a quick hit in the back of the knees or a cream pie in the face. A reader can bask in his outspokenness. Speaking clearly but no explanation for the refreshing Ellmann; she is the mistress of brutal truth.
I read his epic novel and tour de force of 2019 Ducks, Newburyport, in a way I’ve never read before, furiously flipping the pages, hungry to catch up and mentally exclaiming all the time: teenager and Ms. Fawlty on the phone.
It was all recognition, identification, relativity. Here is a writer – finally – reflecting my own experience of the world, of reality as it presents itself to us in bits and pieces in the first quarter of the 21st century. All. (And who had done this before?) She was the postie delivering all my thoughts, all my answers to the world, by snowblower all over my backyard.
In Things are against us, Ellmann freely uses the same shtick, compiling his complaints, perceptions, fears, forebodings, and outrage into lists that take his reader on a whitewater ride. “They seem almost innocent to me, my scruples and my contempt,” she confides wistfully even before the book has really started, “now that the whole human experience is coming to an end,” then continues with a cheerful courage, “to complain.”
These three words set the tone for the collection – non-academic, straightforward. They defined her position as their author – woman to woman. She’s our messy commentator with an important job to do, and we’re not going to sink into this male mess without a fight. “Table of discontents,” says the next page.
The 14 plays that make up Ellmann’s Discontent, vividly illustrated by Diana Hope, bring together all of his comedic powers in the service of his family truths. How far would we be further in the work of dismantling patriarchy, if only feminists had refused to embrace (as they have) the pernicious academic practice of inventing their own incomprehensible language? What if they had instead supported a healthy practice of speaking candidly?
Their books continue to be crammed with the jargon of the day. But does any of them plead to strip men of power with as much force as, “Who invented the fucking atomic bomb?” (Not to mention “genocide, totalitarianism, whaling, rugby and snuff movies”?)
Ellmann never pulls his punches and the best (“MEN HAVE RUINED LIFE ON EARTH”) prove to be irrefutable.
It can be put in everyday language, but it is far from naive. Ellmann has a whole kitchen drawer of sharp utensils to carve out her subjects – though it’s likely she would object to the violence of the metaphor. The device on the list, in Ellmann’s hands, obtains reliable results: “Men rejoice in unauthorized violence, but also in the glory of legalized murder … Give them a great dark system of promotion of death they can rely on, a male hierarchy that provides them with purpose, loyalty, misfortune, destruction, epaulets, good rape opportunities, a general testosterone miasma, guaranteed transmission of domesticity and a stage for showy acts of heroism, and they are happy as clams. ”
These “shoulder pads” are there for a good reason. Ellmann’s handwriting is always tighter than it claims. The shoulder pads perform a dual function; they make you laugh and then they make you think, seriously.
Likewise, the word “Monopoly” is a comedic ending to a list of male hobbies (“witch hunts, warfare, rape, drug cartels …”) until you remember Monopoly is exactly what plays out in real life in our cities and communities.
Ellmann is entertaining, funny, crazy and courageous, but most of all, she empowers. You remember that you are not alone. You wake up again with echoes everywhere – Harry Patch (look at him) calling the war “legalized mass murder”; September 11th New York Times play by Maureen Dowd, titled Gather, let us down.
It’s good to know that Ellmann keeps his formidable comedic weapons trained on the people who got us into this pig show, “that big fat radioactive cow of growth, progress, and uselessness that they’ve put down everywhere.” , because patriarchy is always, like us burning, choosing growth, choosing consumption, competition, expansion, extraction, destruction – choosing to screw things up.
Pauline Holdstock is a Vancouver Island novelist, short fiction writer and essayist.