Bloomsbury Circus, 352pp, £12.99
The ground beneath our feet is shaky territory for the narrator of Lucy Ellmann’s excellent sixth novel. Harrison Hanafan, an eminent New York plastic surgeon, is walking down Madison Avenue one Christmas Eve when he slips on ice, thereby transplanting himself instantaneously “from the lofty, vertical and intellectual to . . . the lowly and prostrate”.
The irony of having a position of high social status but low morality is explored throughout with great humour. “In Manhattan a man without an upright position hasn’t got a chance,” complains Hanafan, who subsequently wallows in his literal downfall. Yet he is rescued and helped to his feet again by a “plump middle-aged gal with brown eyes” – this is Mimi, a feisty feminist going through the menopause who will, throughout the novel, be not only a physically but also a morally uplifting corrective to Hanafan’s life.
The plastic surgeon has attempted to shape the contours of his world with the same precision as his knife slicing along flesh; he is, for example, a ferocious list-maker. Among Hanafan’s many lists is a “list of melancholy things”, which is his “life’s work”. There’s a tension between his list-making and what fails to make it on to his lists, a conflict between the attempt to craft and order life and its stubborn insistence on eluding our delineations.
Ellmann unfolds the narrative with aplomb as Hanafan’s romance with Mimi takes him on an emotional journey while he re-evaluates his life. Ellmann’s anger at the mistreatment and subordination of women simmers powerfully throughout her previous five novels; the difference here is that she has channelled that rage through another stylistic device: a male perspective. The reader sees all of Hanafan’s folly and foibles, yet there is also a sense of hope about the possibility of real change – not the superficial changes to the surfaces of human bodies that Ellmann satirises so acutely but psychological and emotional metamorphosis.
This novel is a dissection of what it means to be human and its portraits of human beings are thrown into high relief by sharing the pages with cartoon characters and animals. Hanafan spends his evenings organising his cartoon collection alphabetically, from Alvin and the Chipmunks to Yogi Bear: “Well, what of it? What’s a plastic surgeon supposed to do after a hard day’s work realigning human flesh, if not chill out to scenes of imaginary animals getting punched, stretched, bounced up and down, steamrollered, blown to smithereens, and reborn good as new?” He will learn what it really means to be “reborn”. There is a rescue cat (“The cat really knew how to live!”). There is a sister called Bee. There is pontification on “the heroism of an ant”.
Ellmann’s work is characterised by a delightfully playful style, experimenting with the boundaries of form and the visual layout of writing, and is scattered with capitals and exclamation marks and italics. Here, she liberally uses italics – the full force of emotion pressed against words – as well as pages of music scores. The rich layering of literary and artistic references adds depth to this portrait of shallow lives. In exuberant, exhilarating prose that carries a substantial cargo of humour and wit, this cutting social satire anatomises an era and, by focusing on a man who alters human bodies, offers an X-ray of the curious workings of the mind.