Man or Mango? A Lament
Something of a latter-day Jonah, Eloise describes her life as “half-alive hermitude”: she avoids windows, minds cats, plays the cello (badly), writes letters of complaint to the makers of “defective loo roll holders,” and allots “recovery time” to each social encounter. George is an American writer, painfully dependent on rich, dull patrons, who wonders whether he’ll ever finish his epic poem about ice hockey. He’s contemptuous of what he regards as England’s abnegation of sexuality—”a land of safe but wasted women.” Then there’s Ed, burglar, pervert, and bee tormentor, who grows giant vegetables in his backyard and sends letter bombs to women in the news.
The book itself is a collage of lists, its scope ranging from inventories of house contents to the elements that constitute seawater—the kind of manly data that distracts us continually from our true dilemma: how to love in a loveless world.
Eloise is on a fervent retreat from mankind—greedy, cruel, and worthless species that it is. She would, however, very much like a man. “On a scale of human suffering,” Lucy Ellmann asserts, her heroine’s “celibacy was of little account. But in an ideal world it would be recognized as the tragedy it was. This, in a woman who from the age of five suspected she wanted more sex than she would ever get.” Alas, Eloise’s temporary crushes on her mover, a gardener (not even her own), and the neighbor’s architect have resulted only in disappointment and a criminal waste of lipstick. Her real obsession remains George, an American she had an affair with on a New England holiday six years earlier. But after she returned to England, the relationship eventually fizzled and she is now condemned to a life of misanthropy and felines. She is also on a furious letter-writing and list-making streak. In one lengthy roster she assesses social (i.e., “damaging”) encounters according to the recovery time they require. In another, she explains “HOW EVERYTHING WRONG WITH THE WORLD IS MEN’S FAULT,” including whistling (“Men are forever announcing their presence with this territorial tunelessness”) and male nipples (“Borrowed jewelry for a chest that is too flat. They even stuck nipples on their medieval armour! Ridiculous. Insane.”).
Unbeknownst to Eloise, her long-lost lover is actually in England, on a creative-writing sinecure that is only making his own writing—an ill-fated script and an ice-hockey-fixated epic—worse, not to mention turning him Anglophobic. As far as George is concerned, the British are video-crazed, sex-avoiding, and deeply narcissistic. For one thing, “most of Benjamin Britten’s (incredible) reputation here’s due to his name being BRITTEN.” When these star-crossed lovers finally meet again in Connemara—along with a giant-vegetable-growing burglar and letter bomber; a man whose wife drowned while she was rescuing their pet (“It wasn’t that their dog wasn’t worth saving,” he thinks, “a gentle fellow who never barked”); and various other misfits including three old ladies on a shoplifting spree—the results are spectacular. (Think Deep Impact, but on a smaller scale.) As Ellmann’s third novel careens from the deadly serious (the Holocaust) to the deeply absurd (mangoes are better than men because they don’t “lord it over everybody at committee meetings”), it may well exasperate some readers. Others, however, will be charmed by this fruitful, extreme concoction. —Kerry Fried