Review of Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

Mimi is not Lucy Ellmann’s best work, but this book was still intelligent and more entertaining than 99% of inanimate objects on this planet.

Ellmann’s acerbic brand of feminism doesn’t really work with the goofy male narrator, as other reviewers have pointed out. You most certainly won’t like this plastic surgeon guy, but again, entertainment is the name of the game. If I can be intellectually engaged with and laugh at a novel, it has done its job. I don’t ask it to be balanced, tonally perfect, or unbiased in order to earn 4 stars. Lucy Ellmann knows how to write well. Every book of hers I’ve tried so far has been good to stellar.

This, like her upcoming Ducks, Newburyport, will likely polarize readers. I would not call this vintage Ellmann, but it is welcome padding to her modest body of work. Calling her work modest is completely inaccurate though. There always seems to be one person, male or female, at a party or event – think of your wedding – who just cannot behave themselves. Ellmann relishes these moments of misbehavior and delves deeply into the troubling psyches of her characters at the same time. The plots are typically simple, where they exist at all, because her focus is internal monologue, which she could write a whole book using – oh wait, DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT!

Don’t begin your foray into her oeuvre with Mimi. Likely, you’ll laugh, but the literary experiments toward the back of the book (extra padding on an already padded book) will just confuse you. Her use of musical sheets and pictures doesn’t get on my nerves. It’s a little distracting but I’m there for the writing. I’m not averse to long lists and tables, if used in service of character, though I wish the overt comments were kept to the sidelines, or used more subtly.

Subtlety is used more effectively in her other works, and it is a poignant spice missing from this particular concoction.

Review of Man or Mango? by Lucy Ellmann

Man or Mango is my least favorite Ellmann novel. 

I have gotten through all of her novels aside from Doctors & Nurses and Ducks, Newburyport. This not to say that Man or Mango, a Lament, is not good. It is entertaining, like all of her work, though it lacks focus and subtlety in my opinion.

Ellmann, famously an expatriate, who looks down on America’s excesses through the lenses of her biased characters. There were segments in this book of unfiltered feminist vituperation. She also takes occasional potshots at Britain, so I wonder if she really feels at home there. One would gather from her humorous tirades that she was perpetually uncomfortable. Her characters, which are all uniformly Vonnegut-level snide social commentary machines, sniping at Presidents and secret shoppers and innocent old ladies, never tire of criticizing the universe around them. This method is used to best effect in her masterpiece Dot in the Universe, where she pulls out all the stops and unleashes the full force of her imagination. Ellmann has it out against aging, infirmity, and general unhappiness, the cruelty of the universe and the barbarity of human beings. Fulfillment doesn’t present itself to her hopeful and hopeless, lovelorn protagonists. It is the illusive Grail they compose their grim jeremiads to.

Present for the reader’s reflection is a fixation with ice hockey, cramps of a sensitive nature, and other unexplainable absurdities. The novel would have gone off without a hitch if it weren’t for digressions, transgressions and lists. They intercede the story whenever the protagonists interact in a semi-interesting way. Unlike in Mimi, not a lot of participation occurs between the elements of story and the outward-directed commentary. If she could, Ellmann would operate solely within the confines of her characters’ heads, as she does in her massive psychological tome Ducks, Newburyport. The outside world is only a medium through which the opinions and perceptions of these literary players wade. Nothing is as real as their own vexations. I got the sense that Ellmann started writing without much thought where she was going with it and then the pen started veering off wildly as she attempted to navigate fictional automatons through the tangled web of her own discontented worldview.

Still, she is an intelligent writer tossing aside the reigns, and training the rifle of her seething resentment on the personal and trivial tragedies of human lives.