Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann
Lucy Ellmann’s most recent novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2019. It is over 1000 pages long, has no paragraph breaks and almost no full stops. It is also a compelling, moving and highly original contemporary insight into the mind of a middle-aged mother in the Midwest of America – and I loved every word. Things Are Against Us is Ellmann’s first collection of essays. Combining Ellmann’s newspaper columns and some previously unpublished work, the essay subjects range from climate change to patriarchy, to Little House on the Prairie and Donald Trump. My favourite is the eponymous first essay in which Ellmann rails against all THINGS (the word ‘things’ appears throughout in capital letters). It is funny, sarcastic, playful and self-deprecating, but also provocative and fantastically experimental with language and structure. Ellmann is a master of lists, a seemingly prosaic procession of words builds to a rhythm and poetically creates original insight into how humans are ruining the planet and all of humanity.
Ellmann is best when she is railing against systemic privilege rather than individuals and there are several of Ellmann’s observations that I did not find convincing; a more nuanced discussion of race and class is needed in parts. Interestingly a lot of the same thinking from these essays comes through in Ducks, Newburyport but it lands so much more successfully in a novel with context and character and the time to flesh out ideas and identify their genesis. But if a 1000-plus page novel with no paragraphs breaks doesn’t immediately appeal, start with these essays and if you like Ellmann’s uniquely funny and acerbic style, definitely make the time for Ducks, Newburyport, a remarkable novel from an original mind.