Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann review – a funny and furious womanifesto

“Let’s complain”, exhorts Lucy Ellmann in a preface to her first essay collection, Things Are Against Us. And complain she does, though the verb barely seems adequate for the atrabilious, freewheeling fury that spills from its pages. Aimed at everything from air travel to zips, genre writing to men (above all, hombres), her ire is matched only by an irrepressible comic impulse, from which bubbles forth kitsch puns, wisecracking whimsy and one-liners both bawdy and venomous. As she explains: “In times of pestilence, my fancy turns to shticks.” Goofiness notwithstanding, Ellmann is complaining only to the extent that the sans-culottes grumbled about goings-on at Versailles. She’s out to foment revolution, and this book is nothing less than a manifesto.

It begins gently enough with the title essay, one of just three not to have already been published elsewhere. Ellmann is tormented by the “conspiratorial manoeuvrings” of inanimate objects. Socks race to get away from her, and pens, credit cards and lemons hurry after them. Paper cuts, soap slips and fitted sheets never do fit. It’s the kind of rogue anthropomorphism at which Dickens, one of her favourite writers, excels, but what really unnerves her is the sense that if these things have it in them to become so hostile, then what potential slights might be delivered by those we’ve really wronged – the vegetables we chow down on, the animals?

Humans are not, De hecho, the innocent party here, but the unity of Ellmann’s guilty “we” evaporates in the next essay, Three Strikes, which splits the human race into them and us – them being men, us being women – and more or less keeps it that way until the book’s end. Its message – one that’s rooted in her 2013 novela Mimi, and resounds throughout – is that men have made such a colossal dog’s dinner of running the world, it’s only reasonable for women to take over. She has plenty of ideas for how we’ll rout the patriarchy, including strikes (we must refuse all domestic labour, work and, Lysistrata-style, sex with men) and the compulsory redistribution of male wealth (“yanking cash out of male hands is a humanitarian act”). Matriarchal socialism, she believes, is our sole hope if we’re to save humanity and avert ecological catastrophe.

There’s a lot at which men might cavil here. Their unwillingness to live in harmony with nature is blamed for everything from war and fascism to toxic rivers and fracking. Violence is their “security blanket”, misogyny a form of terrorism. They could also try smiling more. Oh, and push off out of the kitchen: “The worst thing about men taking over the cooking of fancy food in restaurants is that every dish now arrives covered in ejaculate, all drizzle, foam and schmeers.”

The one-word riposte to any wounded male feelings is of course sutory (sí, gendered language takes a hit, también). O, Por supuesto, current affairs, be it the dismal conviction figures for rape, the enduring pay gap, “femicidal” violence… The list is endless, and Ellmann does love a list. While they sometimes come off as glib, they can also unleash glorious flights of fancy like one titled “Esto is the stuff of girl dreams”. Its last item? “To hide a pet mouse in your mouth and scare people.” Take that, teen makeup vloggers.

Ellmann gives italics, capital letters and rangy footnotes equally free rein, and though it’s not as ambitious as eschewing full stops and paragraphs in Ducks, Newburyport, her capacious, prize-winning monologue of 2019, it does add anarchic energy. Like letterpress broadsides, these pages bellow. Here she is, por ejemplo, in an essay on lingerie: "MEN HAVE MANAGED TO EROTICISE BRAS, BUT THEY DON’T HAVE TO WEAR THEM.”

Bras. Haven’t we moved on from that topic? Especially since lockdown supposedly converted us all to “bralettes”. Retro though it sounds – and Ellmann, a child of the 1950s, certainly admires the “politically advanced” 60s and 70s – the fact that we’ve stopped talking about such things doesn’t mean they’ve ceased being a thing. Igualmente, while the tone of her outrage jars with wokeism’s watchful self-censoring, her frame of reference is bang up to date: Covid plays havoc, 3D printers chug away, and the shock of January’s Maga attack on the Capitol… Actually, that’s had markedly little effect on American patriotism, according to Ellmann.

Aside from Agatha Christie, whose books are “atrocious, only suitable for people with colds”, the one target more thoroughly vilified than the male of the species is the United States. Triunfo, por supuesto, embodies both, but even with him gone, the US is a disaster. De algun modo, just as the long litanies of male wrongs can seem a little, bien, androcentric, so this beating on the US becomes, in its own strange way, another form of American exceptionalism.

In biographical note, Ellmann describes herself as a “fretful iconoclast, much prone to anger”. Impressive though her splenetic verve is, she’s also a lover – of Bach, her husband, fruit bowls, handicrafts, simply staying put. Her writing, también, is powered by a deep generosity that’s on show in the joyously eclectic nature of her sources: where else would you find Abraham Lincoln, Audre Lorde and Whit Stillman jostling elbows? And while she’s up for banning all verbal abuse and any mention of people’s appearance, she’s not one for cancelling. Her essay The Woman of the House, por ejemplo, continues to hold Laura Ingalls Wilder dear, despite “troubling blunders and omissions” where Native Americans are concerned.

You don’t have to agree with everything Ellmann says to find this supple, provocative volume invigorating. En efecto, part of its craftiness lies in keeping the reader guessing about precisely how seriously she takes herself. She closes with a modest hope that it might result in just one “repentant man” helping a woman achieve an extra multiple orgasm somewhere in the world. Ese, seguramente, is a manifesto worth getting behind. On second thoughts, better make it a womanifesto.

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