Guest Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

Today I welcome Valerie O’Riordan to my blog. Valerie is a writer, critic and academic. She lectures in Creative Writing and English at the University of Bolton. Her fiction has appeared in numerous national and international publications, including Tin House, LitMag, The Lonely Crowd, and The Manchester Review. She edits both Bookmunch and the Forge Literary Magazine. It is through my contributions to Bookmunch that we are associated. After I had submitted my review of Things Are Against Us to Bookmunch, I noticed that Val was reading the book. Interested in what she thought of it, I was delighted when she agreed to review it for Never Imitate.

Lucy Ellmann, Things Are Against Us

Things are against us, if by *us* we’re talking women, and anyone who identifies similarly, queer folx more broadly, and that’s not even to mention the issues thrown up for Black and brown and indigenous peoples, and by *things* we mean, oh, the institutional structures of human societies worldwide. In fact, notes Ellmann, when you look at it with a keen eye, ‘the whole human experiment seems to be drawing to a close.’ So what’s to do? Well, while we work busily on a global socialist-feminist uprising, we might as well complain.

Things Are Against Us is complaint writ large. It represents a glorious bellowing back against the Trumps, the Weinsteins, the mansplainers and manspreaders; against penile architecture and commodity fetishism and tech utopians and widespread ignorance; against bras, against travel, against morning routines and stereotypes; against fake news and FGM and femicide; against violence of all sorts. Make no mistake: this is a tirade. Or, tirades, really, because this is a collection of essays, Ellmann’s first work of non-fiction, drawing several previously unpublished pieces together with polemics printed over the last twenty-one years, from ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’ (2000) to ‘Sing the Unelectric’ (2013), to ‘Consider Pistons and Pumps’ (2016) and ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put’ (2017). The recurrent theme is patriarchy and its manifold woes, and the latter essays are sharply focussed on Trump and his administration, still in power when most of these pieces were composed. With the election of what Ellmann calls, variously, ‘this delusional mass murderer’ (gun violence, kids in cages, Covid), ‘the phoniest guy they could find’, and, turning Trump’s own vocabulary against him, ‘the big fat loser of a president’, and the attempted MAGA coup following Biden’s election, America reached ’a whole new level of patriarchal absurdity’. And this book is dedicated, mostly, to a setting out of this
state of affairs: how it came about, how it’s manifesting itself, how screwed we all really are. And it is all of us: while Ellmann’s a steadfast ex-pat (she lives in Scotland), she doesn’t let the UK gets away with anything — Tony Blair is a war criminal and Brexit is, she argues, ‘the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred’ — and even though America does play its hand especially blatantly, it’s patriarchal capitalism that’s the real enemy, not any particular nation-state. ‘Wildlife is pretty much finished now’, Ellmann says, plainly, and it’s true. So what do we do? Well, complain, for a start: make ourselves heard. Take a stance. Hold out for worldwide matriarchy, suggests Ellmann. Be strong, take the
money, and run. (And take the pill.)

Now, remember, this is Lucy Ellmann, who might well be the living embodiment of barbed wit: this is a funny collection. It’s bold and brash and unafraid to offend, defiantly belligerent, and for every swipe the book takes at unabashedly misogynistic and colonialist and ecocidal world leaders and conventions, it takes another at missing hot water bottle stoppers, blenders and pumpkin spice lattes. It’s a serious book, but a fun one; it’s an easy read, a rapid read, a fist-thumping and grinning read. It’s enjoyable. But that’s also how it gets you: Ellmann lays a trail of funny breadcrumbs, draws you in, and then, bang: we’re reading about the stupefaction of the public by YouTube and Fox News and we are furious. It’s smart and ingenious and demonstrates enormous rhetorical skill – skill that has, often, gone underappreciated in the reaction to her works online. Ellmann rails against so many Things that critics — and, naturally, social media users who, in many cases, haven’t actually read her works — have liked to latch onto isolated examples (her dig at crime fiction; her twitter essay about ‘crap’) as case-studies in why she ought to be ignored. But one of the Things Ellmann rails against is this proliferation of electronic noise: the unconsidered pile-on, the lack of critical thinking encouraged by the exact varieties of patriarchal capitalism that got Trump into the hotseat in the first place. Slow down, she’s saying, step back, shut up and think. We don’t like gobby, unapologetic women, do we? Why is that?

‘I made nice,’ Ellmann says, and ‘it didn’t work.’ So pay attention. Get angry. Be strong: complain.

Valerie O’Riordan