Reviewed: Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

Under the skin.

Mimi
Lucy Ellmann
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.

 

“In Manhattan a man without an upright position hasn’t got a chance." Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution