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Things Are Against Us: Anti-patriarchy polemic and satire

The grumbling in her novels is tempered with tenderness but the unbridled fury here feels like preaching to the choir

British comedy writer Lucy Ellmann: “Men have wrecked everything of beauty and cultivated everything putrid on the face of the earth.” Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis
Things Are Against Us
Things Are Against Us
Author: Lucy Ellman
ISBN-13: 978-1913111137
Publisher: Galley Beggar Press
Guideline Price: £9.99

“Let’s complain,” suggests Lucy Ellmann in the preface to this new collection of essays, her first book of nonfiction. In lieu of a Table of Contents, a Table of Discontents catalogues the 14 pieces, of which three are previously unpublished.

The griping begins innocently enough: in the titular essay, Ellmann sets out the disappointments of THINGS. "Fitted sheets never fit," she writes. "And duvet covers? Their deviltry is legendary." The pitch amps up quickly with The Underground Bunker, a piece about Trump's America that first ran in The Irish Times, followed by Three Strikes, an anti-patriarchy polemic that appeared in the Baffler.

Not included in the collection but of similar tone is Crap, an essay dispatched by her publisher in 257 tweets (“that’s a lot of crap!”) to promote the book’s release. Among the litany of things on Ellmann’s shit list are architecture, the BBC, crime fiction, Judy Garland, the internet, kale, mathematics, the New Yorker, pop music, prosthetic sex arses, wild swimming and world leaders.

Some of the sentiments raised eyebrows: “scientists are crap” did not go down well at a time when Sarah Gilbert, co-creator of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, received a standing ovation at Wimbledon. Other tweets provoked outright outrage: “releasing a manmade virus from a lab to crap on the world is crap of the highest order” was accused of promoting a racist conspiracy theory.


Men, too, are crap in Ellmann’s eyes – a recurring motif throughout Things Are Against Us. “Men have wrecked everything of beauty and cultivated everything putrid on the face of the earth,” she writes. Patriarchy as a whole may well have “trashed the place”.

Matriarchal manifesto

But what now? For Ellmann, the solution for inequality is not redistribution but tilting the see-saw the other way.Invoking the matriarchal manifesto of her 2013 novel Mimi in Take the Money Honey, she insists that “yanking cash out of male hands is a humanitarian act”. The aim is not just restorative but punitive – “men should pay us back for their belittlement of women”.

In Ellmann’s vision of “female supremacy”, women would be in charge, but installing them in positions of power isn’t sufficient; leadership must be collective. Dare I bring up Animal Farm?

Since men have not rushed to take up Ellmann’s suggestion to “hand over the dough”, in Three Strikes she suggests women undertake a housework strike, a labour strike and a sex strike. “I can’t wait for the first two,” she quips. The essay was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1938 Three Guineas, in which Woolf suggested donating a guinea to each of three causes: war prevention, rebuilding a women’s college in Cambridge, and helping women find employment in the professions.

Three Strikes contains copious footnotes, which at times take up the whole page. A paratext aficionado, Ellmann explains that footnotes “make obliging underdogs in any essay on female subordination”. Woolf’s judgments are more measured: she allowed that bellicose “feelings and opinions are by no means universally held” by men, for example, whereas Ellmann accuses them of having “the same identical thoughts on high heels, inflatable sex dolls, and the pay gap”.

Long-converted choir

Along with her penchant for lists, Ellmann’s fiction is replete with ranting, including Ducks, Newburyport, her 2019 tour de force, which won the Goldsmiths Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker. But whereas the grumbling in the novels is tempered with tenderness, the unbridled fury on display in Things Are Against Us feels like Ellmann preaching to a long-converted choir.

Third-Rate Zeros, one of the previously unpublished pieces, begins: “Now that the big fat loser of a president, that tremendously sick, terrible, nasty, lowly, truly pathetic, reckless, sad, weak, lazy, incompetent, third-rate, clueless, not smart, dumb as a rock, all talk, wacko, zero-chance lying liar, phoney, nut job, clown, fraud, con man, hypocrite, lightweight, poor loser, goofball, and low-life Donald Trump is gone (pending prosecution and ignominy), we need to start repairing the neurological damage Trump has done worldwide.” Query if keeping up the cortisol of rage is all that reparative.

The essays in Things Are Against Us consider other topics, including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, the toxic effects of tourism, and the morning routines of influencers. But its resounding theme is that “MEN HAVE RUINED LIFE ON EARTH” (caps are Ellmann’s). Even couched as satire, the unrelenting misandry of Things Are Against Us is less galvanising than repetitive.

“In times of pestilence, my fancy turns to shticks,” Ellmann explains. Shtick, alas, goes down more smoothly in small doses.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic