Things Are Against Us

By Lucy Ellmann
Illustrated by Diana Hope

Things Are Against Us
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A Toronto Public Library Fall 2021 Pick

An Independent Best Book of 2021

“It’s somehow hard not to be optimistic in the hands of a writer so angry and intelligent. ”—Patrick Ness, Guardian

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. As Yeats pointed out, things have a lot ... Read more


Overview

A Toronto Public Library Fall 2021 Pick

An Independent Best Book of 2021

“It’s somehow hard not to be optimistic in the hands of a writer so angry and intelligent. ”—Patrick Ness, Guardian

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. As Yeats pointed out, things have a lot to answer for. These satirical essays jauntily tackle the obstinacy, incorrigibility, and recalcitrance of things, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s unimpressive descriptions of the construction of bobsleds and door latches, and the way we try to stand on our own two feet, put our best foot forward, remain footloose and fancy-free, and inevitably put our foot in it. They also cover the first suggestion the internet offers when you look up the word ‘women’ (spoiler: it’s shoes) and other annoyances (some fatal) of male supremacy, the nobility of buttons, and what the rejection of tourists by Jordanian donkeys should mean for global travel (stop!). Ingrid Bergman and Jane Austen come into it somewhere (Helen Gurley Brown was forcibly removed).

Early versions of some of these essays have appeared in international outlets of record, but others are brand-new and ready for your delectation.

Illustrations by Diana Hope.

Lucy Ellmann

Lucy Ellmann was born in Illinois and now lives in Scotland. Her first novel, Sweet Desserts, won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Her latest, Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, 2019), won the Goldsmith Prize in and the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction. Man or Mango?, first published in 1998 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), was longlisted for the UK’s Orange Prize. She likes dogs and swimming, but she does not have a dog, nor does she swim. 

 

Excerpt

You have to watch THINGS. They’re always making trouble, getting out of hand, trying to take advantage. THINGS do not have our best interest at heart. They have their own agenda. They care only for other THINGS. THINGS favour THINGS. THINGS indulge THINGS. THINGS prioritize THINGS. THINGS let THINGS get away with THINGS.

THINGS have a lot to answer for. The obstinacy, the incorrigibility of THINGS. The recalcitrance of THINGS, so many disobedient and unbiddable THINGS! THINGS deceive you. THINGS look graspable when they aren’t – THINGS slip out of your hand. THINGS look solid and steady when in fact they’re wobbly –if you step on the THING, you might tip off.

Clothing rebels against the wearer. Socks won’t stay up. Scarves can strangle. Hat brims blind you at crucial moments. Buttons try not to button. Pockets hide stuff, or all too eagerly develop holes, defeating the whole purpose of a pocket, a THING involving a closed space with an opening at the top or side, not the bottom. And who in hell invented the zipper? Like the atom bomb, not a good idea. Zippers can go badly wrong. Eventually, they all give out. Erica Jong famously dispensed with zips.

THINGS disappoint us. Drawers stick. Machines conk out. Rugs fade. Clothes shrink. Bookshelves fall on people. THINGS fall off hangers, people fall off ladders. Ladders are dangerous THINGS. THINGS don’t stay put. THINGS are never the right way up. THINGS get mouldy, THINGS break. THINGS move around in the night!

THINGS get untidy. It is hard to put THINGS in order. THINGS are always making trouble.

A kind of violence is done to us by THINGS all the time, unwieldy THINGS that awkwardly escape us, or trip us over. Soap slips from your grasp in the bath and you can’t find it in the dark. The soap is dissolving while you splash around, singeing your hair on the candle and getting water on the floor. All the tranquillity of bathing is upset by this dopey wrestling match. You catch hold of the soap briefly, then it slides away again. Next, attempting to get out of the bath, you slip and grab the shower curtain, which tears right off its rail. You land on your slippery ass in the bathtub and the momentum and curvature of the tub somehow combine to propel you right out on to the floor, where you lie all wet and winded, seeing stars. This is a typical example of the conspiratorial properties of THINGS.

They may not always cause major cataclysms, but they suggest an underlying hostility. All I’m saying is that, if THINGS can mess you around, they will. THINGS let us down. THINGS fail. Plumbing! What could be a more intimidating THING that that? THINGS outwit us, THINGS flood your kitchen and then act all innocent. The various cumulative outrages committed by THINGS are like little crimes against us, filling us with distrust of the whole wide world, both the manmade bits and all its other sweet parts. The unseen rock that jolts the foot, bird shit on the head (though it’s odd this doesn’t happen more), three buses at once…

Matches won’t light – or else, they explode, sending burning particles on to your hand or clothes. Rugs grab you and knock you over. Needles prick you. Thimbles are an annoying collector’s item. Use the wrong utensil when cooking spaghetti and you get no end of rebellion. The particular pillowcase you wanted to find, somehow manages to hide from you, cleverly camouflaging itself amongst all the other pillowcases. Once you’ve found it, the pillow tries to resist insertion into it. Fitted sheets never fit. And don’t get me started on duvet covers! Their deviltry is legendary.

Pieces of paper frequently evade control: they either pile up threateningly, or disappear unexpectedly, or give you a paper cut. They form themselves into unfathomable wads that emit waves of neglect and distrust.

You fill a hot water bottle and then can’t find the stopper. It has impishly hidden itself. When you spy it, and reach for it with one hand, your other hand still holding the boiling hot hot water bottle, the stopper rolls off the counter on to the floor. Clever THING.

Try dropping merely a small single piece of cardboard into the recycling bag. Will it go in with no trouble? Like hell it will. It’ll inevitably fall outside the recycling bag and go straight down a crack in the floorboards. This is how we begin to realise THINGS are against us. In fact, it’s possible THINGS really hate us!

Reviews

Praise for Things Are Against Us

"'Let’s complain,' urges the author of the prize-winning experimental novel Ducks, Newburyport at the outset of her first work of non-fiction, then valiantly leads the way. Over 14 entries that use approaches ranging from all-caps to page-swallowing footnotes, she takes on Trumpism, the beauty industry, patriarchy and crime writers, with charming tetchiness. "—Globe & Mail

"[Lucy's] working in a tone familiar to lovers of E. B. White and Norah Ephron—knowing, funny, exhausted. "—Chicago Tribune

“[Ellmann] lambastes the patriarchy with verve and gusto … The 14 pieces that comprise Ellmann’s discontents, vividly illustrated by Diana Hope, muster all of her comic powers in the service of her home truths … Ellmann is entertaining, funny, loopy and brave, but, importantly, she’s empowering. You remember that you’re not alone … It’s good to know Ellmann is keeping her formidable comic weaponry trained on the people who got us into this pig show. ”—Pauline Holdstock, Winnipeg Free Press

“[Ellmann] delivers these diatribes with her signature wit and humor . .. Each essay is accompanied by an illustration by artist Diana Hope, which complements the colorful nature of this collection. Fans of Ellmann will likely delight in Things Are Against Us. ”—Chicago Review of Books

“As you might expect, a collection of essays by the author of the prize-winning stream of consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport will not be boring or stuffy. ‘Let’s complain,’ she says in the preface and then proceeds to do just that. A collection of satirical essays written with biting wit, irreverence, and clever wordplay. ”—Toronto Public Library

"In this offbeat essay collection, novelist Ellmann (Ducks, Newburyport) addresses complex systemic ills alongside petty grievances in an acerbic and hilarious litany of complaints . .. Readers of Ducks, Newburyport will be familiar with her expansive writing style, which here manifests as a plethora of footnotes . .. Fans of feminist satire will delight in these rants and ruminations. "—Publishers Weekly

“Ellmann’s polemic is a medley: a wickedly funny, rousing, depressing, caps-driven work of linguistic gymnastics hellbent on upbraiding the deleterious forces of the prevailing misogyny . .. Attentively negotiating a bleak world, the sentences remain joyous constructions . .. ‘Let it blaze!’ commands Woolf in Three Guineas. At their brightest, Ellmann’s own pyrotechnics are ones to savour. ”—Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

"[Ellmann is] out to foment revolution, and this book is nothing less than a manifesto . .. Aimed at everything from air travel to zips, genre writing to men (above all, men), 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 . .. You don’t have to agree with everything Ellmann says to find this supple, provocative volume invigorating. Indeed, part of its craftiness lies in keeping the reader guessing about precisely how seriously she takes herself . .. A manifesto worth getting behind. On second thoughts, better make it a womanifesto. "—Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

"Ellmann’s bravura polemic blends Woolfian hypotheses with Swiftian satire and her own rhetorical signatures . .. Her deadpanning, her asides to 'darn a cheap sock' or 'caress husband’s cheek'—because there is such a THING as a mensch—her blazing diatribes and comedic energy fuel the purposeful lamentation of these hilarious and potent essays. "—The Saturday Paper

“Witty, excoriating polemics . .. Ellmann is fond of puns, alliteration and long lists of sharp adjectives and her put-downs are like a literary version of watching popcorn kernels sizzle and suddenly pop in the pan . .. One of the beauties of Ellmann’s essays is the unexpectedness of her references. For all the wit and wordplay, Ellmann has important points to make, not least about the way that our flailing world is upheld. ”—The Independent

"This new essay collection from the Booker-shortlisted author of Ducks, Newburyport is a romp. Singularly propulsive, balancing conversational irreverence with biting acuity, Lucy Ellmann’s writing drips with wry humour and productive anger. Her razor-sharp commentary never wavers . .. Things Are Against Us figures patriarchy as a structure inextricably linked to capitalism, which is linked in turn to environmental devastation, exploitation and consumerism. As such, Ellmann’s essays focus on the dominant patriarchy—white, Western—and the women who live under it . .. I can’t imagine anyone emerging unmoved. "—i

Things Are Against Us is far from conventional. The pieces that make up this collection are nothing so sober as ‘reflections’. Rather, they are rants of bracing, and often hilarious, frankness. If Ducks, Newburyport managed to poeticise that most anti-poetic of forms, the list, Things Are Against Us does the same for the rant: a niche, but traditionally male literary mode if ever there was one . .. This analysis is channelled through both her writing’s humour and style. A bit like Fran Lebowitz, another great comic, Ellmann seems to hate everything and nevertheless love life . .. Things Are Against Us is a wonderfully cathartic read. After the year we’ve all had, who wouldn’t want to scream?”—Irish Independent

“Innovative . .. In tangential, informal, sarcastic slices of polemic, sprinkled with extensive footnotes sometimes longer than the essay itself, Ellmann ‘complains’ at length about the state of the world. ”—New Statesman

"Witty, provocative . .. As a polemic against the patriarchy, Ellmann’s collection has coherence . .. It's in the titular—previously unpublished—essay that Ellmann reminds the reader what she’s capable of doing with language . .. As the refrain builds into something bigger and more powerful, the essay gives credence to the suggestion that Ellmann is one of the few writers producing modernist work for the contemporary moment. "—Financial Times

"All of this is, at least in part, an act, and a very accomplished one. She has the spiky wit of Nora Ephron, although Ellmann would perhaps not be flattered by a comparison with the mistress of romcoms . .. Things is also extremely fun . .. She has range as well as flair, and within this carnival of apocalypse, there are a couple of fine pieces of criticism . .. Politically, this book is the hyperbolic sibling to the work of the feminist economist Katrine Marçal. Like her, Ellmann wants to expose society’s dependence on female labour and force us to confront ourselves as the vulnerable beings we are—before we destroy the world on which we rely. "—The Spectator

Praise for Ducks, Newburyport

"This book has its face pressed up against the pane of the present; its form mimics the way our minds move now toggling between tabs, between the needs of small children and aging parents, between news of ecological collapse and school shootings while somehow remembering to pay taxes and fold the laundry. "—Parul Sehgal, New York Times

“Ellmann captures the pathos of the everyday, how one might use pie crusts and film synopses to dam in pain . .. [her] commitment to compilation and description suggests a resistance to hierarchies. It also flickers with tenderness. The time and care that she lavishes on her narrator seem like their own form of political speculation—that every individual is owed an unending devotion, and that such devotion, applied universally, might change the fate of the world. "New Yorker

"A sublime literary enactment of how guilt, grief, rage, regret, compassion, and every other emotion swirls and ebbs in unbalanced defiance of rational logic . .. The free-associative stream accumulates into a work of great formal beauty, whose distinctive linguistic rhythms and patterns envelop the reader like music or poetry. Equally, it forms a damning indictment on capitalist patriarchy that, in an extraordinary feat from a writer at the height of her powers, never veers within a mile of sanctimony or self-righteousness. If art is measured by how skillfully it holds a mirror up to society, then Ellmann has surely written the most important novel of this era. "—The Paris Review

"In Ducks, Newburyport the invisible expropriation of women’s domestic labour is tied to the despoiling of the environment and the macho degradation of the public sphere. But this is to suggest the novel can be boiled down to one particular theme, when its entire premise refuses any kind of summary. In reading Ducks, wonder gives way to frustration, which gives way to wonder again, until finishing becomes a kind of contemplative vigil – an exercise in dedication. ..Ducks is asking us to imagine what a total, unboundaried empathy with another person could feel like. " —New Statesman

“Breathlessly brilliant … an extraordinary achievement of wit and imagination … this isn’t just one of the outstanding books of 2019, it’s one of the outstanding books of the century. ”—Irish Times

Praise for Lucy Ellmann

“When I first read Ellmann, I loved her bizarreness, her ferocious humour. But she’s even angrier now, more indignant, and that’s what gives this book its sly substance. The streak of fury that runs through it is stealthy, apparently feminine, cloaked in ditziness. But underneath there are claws and teeth. "—Julie Myerson, Guardian

“[I]t’s somehow hard not to be optimistic in the hands of a writer so angry and intelligent. ”—Patrick Ness, Guardian

“I have been told that reviewers complained about the use of screaming capitals in Lucy Ellmann’s first book, which is why she now packs every page with them . . . Her latest novel, a melded spoof of medical romances and Jane Eyre, is as lunatic and splenetic and distinctive as anything that will be published this year . . . I begin to suspect she may be some sort of genius. "—Victoria Lane, Telegraph

“Ellmann’s writing is fearless . . . a whistle-stop tour of the paraphernalia that litters all our minds. Oddments that most of us notice and discard are here burnished into literary devices. ”—Alice Fishburn, Financial Times

“If there were a laureate for anger, it should go to Lucy Ellmann. ”—Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

 

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