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Small Expectations

Lucy Ellmann is a frustrating writer. Her prose style can be annoying, since it’s the written equivalent of a high-pitched whine by someone in love with her own misery. At times, her showy despair calls to mind a child in art class, drawing apocalyptic horrors that send the teacher running for help. She has a strong comic flair, though, and the courage to write exactly as she pleases. For example: it’s not every day that someone weaves a novel around a frumpy woman, drained of hope, with neither friends nor the least hint of drama in her life, and few feelings left beyond a dull sexual hunger. Yet such women obviously exist, and deserve their day in fiction. And fiction is a stronger art for exploring them.

Eloïse, the heroine of Man or Mango?, lives alone in a cottage in England, eats frozen Indian food, and dreads contact with strangers. About her history we know little, except that two generations ago her Jewish grandmother, then a baby, was whisked out of an unnamed country to set sail for Ellis Island. Despite this heroic beginning, the grandmother did not turn out wise or admirable; instead, she’s an irritating tyrant “who hates blacks, Catholics and Arabs.” Also—and here, right away, we see Ellmann’s indifference to realistic plotting—it turns out that on that fateful day when she emigrated, the grandmother-baby got on the wrong boat. Instead of New York, she sailed into the Irish backwater of Connemara, and ended up raising a British son.

The early, and far and away the best, chapters of Man or Mango? are a knowing depiction of severe depression, somehow made funny. Eloïse’s beloved mother died too young of cancer, and her father lost hope and committed suicide a few years later, condemning her to an “unappeasable sadness.” Emotionally speaking, the adult Eloïse has much in common with a wounded animal, separated from the herd, limping and wheezing and preparing to give up. Her stagnant daily routine seems less like a life than a long wait for death. In conveying the chaos of Eloïse’s mind, Ellmann takes some mild experimental risks—shifting from first to third person, sprinkling in a to-do list that Eloïse writes to herself (most challenging task:staying out of bed). The eye here for paranoia, guilt, and self-hatred is expert, and the style has a nice, improvised ease. Eloïse fantasizes that the world has sent her a rejection letter:

Dear Madam,

It has recently come to our attention here at the Inland Revenue that you are a bad girl, that you were bad to your parents and gradually, throughout the many years of your sorry existence, you have managed to alienate and/or injure everyone with whom you have come into contact, including animals and even inanimate objects.

She grieves for her parents, and blames herself for their death.

I killed them. I stood by and watched them decay and did nothing. Watched, while the doctors dickered with my mother’s body until she could take no more—no more doctors—and died in order to escape them. Watched, as my father drifted into impenetrable despair. Watched as he took his nurofen!

Once in a while a narrator steps in to analyze Eloïse’s flight from mental health:

She was losing touch with humanity. To hold on to language she listened gravely to the radio (sometimes falling into the hermit’s trap of thinking celebrities were her friends). One day Paul Theroux was mentioned and she realized she’d forgotten he’d existed. If they hadn’t said his name she might have forgotten for ever Paul Theroux!

Note those italics, and the frequent exclamations. Ellmann’s most impressive achievement, minor as it may sound, is her brilliant, original use of punctuation. Commas, italics, and exclamation points run through this novel like the score to a movie, embellishing words with additional, pre-verbal information about what’s going on. They convey the physical sensation that accompanies thought, the mental volume at which a character speaks—they tell us whether a thought is a whisper, a whelp, or a full-blown scream. I found the exclamation point after Paul Theroux especially precious. The pathos of knowing the trivia of the day, followed by the pathos of drifting away from such common knowledge: that one vertical stroke is a tragicomedy in miniature.

Man or Mango? was written by a woman about a woman, but Ellmann plays off a tradition of comic novels running from Joyce to Bellow to Roth and starring an alienated man. Though she no longer speaks much to her fellow human beings, Eloïse wouldn’t turn down a night of passion. On the contrary: Ellmann’s urgent goal here is to correct the usual assumption that the nondescript spinster you see standing in line at the grocery has given up on sex. Eloïse’s impulses are as devouring as Portnoy’s. With the shy person’s habit of projecting fantasies of emotional rescue onto innocent bystanders, she falls for her housemover, lusting after the virile way he has of tearing tape with his teeth. At night she wakes up from dreams aroused and ready to go.

Yet, like a lusty Bellow or Roth hero, Eloïse mistrusts the opposite sex, and condescends to it. When an affair with an American poet ended badly a few years ago, she decided that men are fickle simpletons who squander opportunities for love in the name of power, and a ridiculous code of chivalry.

People waste your time trying to convince you that men are reasonable, respectable, human. They’re not. They’re crap. Mutants. Bygones. Useless. Why won’t anyone just say so? They shouldn’t be let loose on the streets—they make life impossible for everyone, mugging and tormenting people… They’re crap. Slugs writhing in mud. Crap. Attention to detail. “Sense of history”! Crap. Dullards, malingerers, gigolos, sycophants, boors—and that’s the best of them! Poets! Parasites on women, betrayers of all. None of them worth the socks they stick their big feet into. All crap. We should take them and their capitalist system and their so-called democracy and their ludicrous judges’ wigs and their fucking Industrial Revolution and everything else they’re so proud of and stuff it into one of their leaky nuclear-waste canisters and blow them all to smithereens, the great male death wish finally fulfilled. Crap. All.

In Man or Mango? it is men, not women, who are accused of helpless hysteria; of living by impossible sentimental rules; of ducking life’s great themes and occupying themselves with busywork, like building nuclear bombs. What’s hilarious here is the way Ellmann holds a long tradition of literary misogyny up to a mirror. Unfortunately, she never harvests this fertile idea. It’s unclear how seriously she endorses Eloïse’s views. On the one hand, the harangue is a mere gag; on the other, when the American poet who betrayed Eloïse resurfaces in London, he more than lives up to Eloïse’s low expectations of men. George is escaping a failed marriage and a professional rut back in Boston by writing scripts for the BBC and teaching creating writing workshops to hungry, naive English students. In a neat move by Ellmann, George is another mirror image—an inversion of that stock comic character, the English con-man intellectual, trading on anglophilia to make it in the States. Ellmann has great fun devising a jerky, emphatic punctuation system to capture his American speech. (“The English are not supportive, they’re reserved. This has nothing to do with some kind of endearing and comical shyness. It’s a brutal and senseless DETACHMENT FROM THE WORLD.”) But underneath the angry music, he’s a caricatured evasive male; one facile, running joke is that he’s writing an epic poem about ice hockey.

Ellmann is evasive, too. She’s fiercely antisentimental—which is a good thing—but so skeptical about the human capacity to change that she can’t come up with a plot. For page after page, George and Eloïse coexist in England, ranting and alone, unaware that each one is pining for the other. Every time they have a chance to draw close and comfort each other, some bizarre circumstance intervenes, snatching away their chance at happiness like a vaudevillian pulling the chair out from under a clown.

Part of the problem is Ellmann’s ambition: she strives too hard for tragic heft. Every so often she interrupts the story’s flow with a list meant to show how unfathomably complex the world is, how loaded with useless minutiae. She catalogs the items in a shabby apartment or draws up a very funny mock-scientific classification of all the different strata and species of the earth (it includes puns and nonsense categories, like ghosts and papier-mâché). Here and there, Ellmann also quotes passages from other books that testify to the inexplicable cruelty of the world. Brazenly, and with little justification, she borrows thematic substance from reports on the Irish famine and the Holocaust. And she excerpts several nineteenth-century biological treatises on insects, the idea being that humans are no more humane to each other than bugs.

There’s something childish, in the end, about all this pessimism. Ellmann’s point is that people are programmed for self-interest, just like the lowest of animals. The successful trample on the weak—but even the weak are not innocent, for they’re mesmerized by their own burdens. Although this may be true, in the shallowest biological sense, such schematic gloom belongs in an adolescent pop song to the effect that love hurts. Here, it threatens to smash Ellmann’s delicate portrait of an awkward woman whose personality is being chipped away by pain. Instead of rounded fiction, Ellmann has chosen to write a spiky riff, a kind of standup comedy on the page. She’d have done more justice to her heroine if she had figured out how to integrate the jokes and the despair—but the jokes are no less funny for her failures, and the despair is no less terrifying.

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