Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99/$16, 352 pages
Here are some of the topics you may wish to revise before reading Mimi: Bette Davis, the mating habits of ducks, Matisse’s models, the bass clef, and recent statistics on violence against women. Lucy Ellmann’s sixth novel is a true original, a love story with lashings of horror and a whimsical tour de force. It might leave you exasperated or exhausted but will certainly make you think.
We are thrown into Ellmann’s breakneck prose as quickly as Harrison Hanafan, her narrator, hurtles on his backside down Madison Avenue at the start of the story. “I slalomed for half a block … my well-iced ass drawing me ever closer to the Christmas Eve traffic, that herd of the hopeless hurling themselves toward family get-togethers … ” His slide is halted by a stranger, a “plump middle-aged gal” whom we later discover is called Mimi. It is an unlikely meeting that is perfect for a New York fairytale.
Harrison is ready for change. He is surrounded by women: his much-loved sister Bee, his loathed ex-girlfriend Gertrude, the patients he sees each day as an elite New York plastic surgeon. Yet his professional interactions with the opposite sex consist of chopping them up. His surgery is full of over-sexualised daughters, slashed girlfriends and defeated wives, all hoping that he and his colleagues can transform their lives. “Bit heavy on the scalpels, light on the scruples, I sometimes felt.”
Then along comes Mimi: “a curious mixture of the erratic and erotic”. This vibrant powerhouse usurps her consumptive namesake, the heroine of La Bohème, in Harrison’s imaginings. Outspoken, magnetic, loving, challenging, irresistible, the new Mimi sweeps Harrison into her bed and her wake. Ellmann has a lot to say about women with a lot to say and Mimi, a public-speaking coach by trade, is an easy mouthpiece. “Mimi on breast cancer campaigns: ‘Them and their pink ribbons. It’s sexual harassment! They never let you forget your breasts are a liability.’” As she becomes Harrison’s tutor and lover, he starts to grapple with his own views on women and his world.
Ellmann’s writing is fearless in its experimentation: 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. Harrison is a compulsive list-maker, recording the many things that induce melancholy in him:
“Why I hate bathrobes:
1. The belt never stays tied.
2. Often an old Kleenex in the pocket.
3. They’re always too hot.
4. And frequently tartan.”
This scrapbook-like approach to writing also includes pages of transcribed music, folk songs, images and an extended appendix. Ellmann’s language is similarly patchworked – italic stresses, bracketed asides and an obsession with alliteration that starts with the protagonist’s name. The puns and word games that dominate the conversations between Harrison and his sister indicate their shared history, which is the most moving part of the novel. Bee is an artist whose obsession with tombstone inscriptions speaks to her own melancholy and who is known for her work creating corners of artificial cosiness among the harsh realities of modern society.
Suddenly, amid the quirkiness and cosiness, we learn of a senseless act of violence that is the real emotional heart of the story and the moment which derails, enrages and then transforms Harrison. He becomes a man on a mission, an evangelist for women who uses the unlikely forum of a high-school graduation speech to put forth his manifesto: “The whole world is run by terrorists. And those terrorists are MEN.” Harrison’s zeal shows that no one is more fanatical than the recently converted.
Mimi is at its best when Ellmann uses her innovative style and light touch to highlight society’s darkest truths. In the lengthy appendix to the novel, she offers the reader a “Cacophony”. Its jumble of material includes almost four pages of headlines about violence, murder and sexual attack. They make bleak reading and this sudden, final assault is a reminder that while fairytale endings may exist, there is no escape from the reality that intrudes on even the happiest ever-afters.