Book Review

In a recent interview on the NPR show Fresh Air, a ninety-five-year-old Mel Brooks told Terry Gross that while he didn’t know what the meaning of life was, he did know that comedy was his “delicious refuge from the world.” Gross quotes from Brooks’s new memoir, in which he writes: “Even though it seems foolish and silly and crazy, comedy has the most to say about the human condition because if you laugh, you can get by. You can survive when things are bad if you have a sense of humor.”

The author Lucy Ellmann finds humor a useful conduit for saying something about the human condition, particularly the pathetic, base, and troubling contemporary one that is the subject of her collection of essays, Things Are Against Us. But while Ellmann’s writing boils over with satire and wicked humor, it’s unclear whether or not she, like Brooks, finds refuge in comedy. Whether her readers will find the same is also subject to debate, not because the essays aren’t good (they’re terrific), but because the arduous work of humor has been made more difficult by a world that insists on parodying itself. While it’s true I found little refuge in Ellmann’s book, the swiftness of thought, the cleverly associative style and wordsmithing, not to mention the clear demonstration of a singular intellect makes the collection both a worthwhile read and, dare I say, an important one.

While the essays address subjects ranging from bras (don’t wear them), travel (don’t do it), things (they’re—naturally—against us), and Laura Ingalls Wilder (do read her, but with caveats), Ellmann’s two principal targets are the patriarchy/men and the United States of Catastrophe (i.e., America). That I agree with her on most counts does not lessen the sting of her needle-sharp prose; all Americans, left and right, are subject to her verbal dissections. In “Trapped Family Fingers,” Ellman writes: “Americans rely on Disney for comfort, along with vaccine evasion, Vietnam bombing-raid re-enactments, and whole days devoted to YouTube gaming videos. For the few remaining centrists and liberals, there’s a self-congratulatory movie now and then about Ruth Bader Ginsberg or the more prominent heroes of the Underground Railway—while everyone unites to await execution at church, the mall, the gas station, convenience store, or parking lot. Or, of course, at home.” The execution to which she’s referring is the distinctly American pandemic of gun violence and its citizenry’s shared helplessness in doing anything about it. Needless to say, I did not find myself laughing so much as nodding in somber, self-hating agreement at Ellmann’s evisceration of America and Americans.

Ellmann’s other principal target, the patriarchy, is sometimes combined with America. In “Third-Rate Zeros” she explores toxic masculinity via that most obvious example, Donald Trump. But lest readers think this is simply a diatribe against our former president, Ellmann’s use of footnotes, jaunty asides, lists, all-caps, and “solutions” makes the ride through the plague of the patriarchy if not hilarious at least a lot more fun. Beginning the essay with a school-days critique of Trump that employs his own verbiage (“The big fat loser of a president, that tremendously sick, terrible, nasty, lowly, truly pathetic, reckless, sad, weak, lazy, incompetent, third-rate, clueless, not smart, dumb as a rock . . . low-life”), the author then suggests the rest of us “start to repair the neurological damage Trump has done worldwide.” How, might you ask, we do this? Well, says Ellmann, why don’t we all agree, that “everybody stop belittling people.” However, this requires “a little modesty in our own use of language,” so instead of words, Ellmann proposes a numerical system whereby each number represents a different insult (“0 = Zero. 1 = Fat. 2 = second-rate,” and so on). But after employing the system against Trump, the author dismisses her own idea, finding it “Not very satisfying.” That she is delighting in meeting the former president at his level is clear; she’s not about to spoil her own fun anytime soon.

As readers we wouldn’t find it very satisfying if Ellmann chose the high road either, especially because we’d miss out on the second half of the essay, which digs into the literary patriarchy’s indefatigable and frankly, tired, gaze on women’s bodies. “We’re rarely told about people’s fallen arches or faulty immune systems” notes Ellmann, but women’s bodies, especially their breasts and vaginas have always been and continue to be fair game. The biggest offenders are “male novelists . . . who need to be forcibly restrained from breast-tracking,” though male literary critics run a close second. Fifty years after Ellmann’s mother, the writer and critic Mary Ellmann, wrote about sexist stereotypes among male literary critics, “Nothing much has changed . . . (except that Norman Mailer has died). Men still equate ‘soft body, soft mind’, and there are still men who fear that reading a book by a woman is beneath them, and might even deplete their masculinity. Masculinity is such a fragile substance—finite as helium, it’s always draining away into the ether.” Indeed.

In my favorite essay, “Three Strikes,” Ellmann employs Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas” to shape an argument against the patriarchy. This essay is Ellmann at her most biting, smart, persuasive, and inventive. She incorporates well-researched and witty reflections on warfare, environmental degradation, animal welfare, rape, terrorism, childbearing and rearing, atomic energy, V (formerly known as Eve Ensler), and a host of other topics to argue for a global women’s strike to end male dominance. Throughout the essay the author inserts domestic “pauses”: “A pause to hang up the washing” or “Pause to mess—in vain—with my hair” or “Pause to caress husband’s cheek”. While cheeky, each feels more like a blow than respite, reminding female readers of our own conditioning and positioning under the patriarchal thumb.

In one of her earlier books, Ellmann suggested men hand the power over to women, primarily by way of the essential ingredient of power in capitalist societies: money. “Three Strikes” begins from that point, stating that since men failed to respond, she was now proposing a strike. But Woolf’s “Three Guineas” is about money, and Ellmann’s essay is elliptical. By its conclusion, she returns to her original idea, providing a footnoted “Mea Culpa Declaration” for men to sign as an acknowledgement of their gross misdeeds. This declaration includes an agreement to “transfer and continue to transfer my financial resources to a woman or women, no strings attached.”

The risk with black humor and satire is a mean-spiritedness that can alienate readers. In “Morning Routine Girls,” a critique of teenage and specifically female wannabe influencers, Ellmann treads dangerously close to this edge. The essay strikes me as oddly tone deaf for a writer targeting the patriarchy. But then women are always being held to a higher standard than men; perhaps it’s my own internalized misogyny that’s quick to pounce on the weakest in the book’s litter. Tough too, is the job of a comedian. All the shticks and punchlines have been unwittingly and unironically usurped by many of Ellman’s targets, who happen to be the most unfunny among us. Instead, humorists and satirists are now, more than anything else, truthtellers, and Ellmann is one of the fiercest and cleverest among them.

About the Reviewer

Lenore Myka is the author of King of the Gypsies: Stories (BkMk Press). A recipient of a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, she is currently at work on a book of creative nonfiction entitled Where I Want to Be: Reflections on Home.