When I first started Mimi by Lucy Ellman, I was expecting something completely different. We’re in Manhatten on Christmas Eve, and noted plastic surgeon, Harrison Hanafan slips and falls on the icy sidewalk. ‘Ya can’t sit there all day, buddy, looking up people’s skirts,’ says the ‘wacko broad’ who picks him up off the floor and then miraculously summons a taxi to take him home. This is the unusual start of a very unusual love affair. It says so much on the back cover. But I was expecting… oh I don’t know, some sort of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a charming screwball comedy with a slightly glamourous setting. And whilst it is a charming book, and it most certainly is screwball, the enormity of my misapprehensions about the novel meant I had to put it down for a couple of weeks until I’d had an expectation adjustment. The blurb suggests it’s for fans of Kurt Vonnegut, Ali Smith and Caitlin Moran. But these didn’t work for me at all. My pitch is that this is a cross between Frasier and François Rabelais: on the one hand, sophisticated wit and opera, on the other, wild exaggeration, farcical event, political messages, crazy word play and a lot of lists.
So you’ll have gathered that this is not your conventional act of storytelling, and maybe even that it’s a novel where the sentence is the source of pleasure, rather than the narrative arc. But to give you as much plot summary as you need, Harry Hanafan returns to his apartment to rest his sprained ankle and to care for a stray cat he’s picked up and named Bubbles while listening to classical music, chatting to his sculptor sister, Bee, on the phone (she’s currently in the UK as an artist in residence) and making some very entertaining lists. He’s just split up with a narcissistic horror named Gertrude, and he lists reasons why. But he’s prone to post break-up melancholy and he lists all the things that trigger it, including shrimp-eating contests, puppetry and the existence of Walmart.
Although Harry’s life looks good on the surface, it lacks meaning. But along comes Mimi, a 49-year-old force of nature (and indeed powered occasionally by pre-menopausal hot flushes), who is a poster girl for the matriarchy. To call Mimi a feminist is like calling Mozart a piano player. In no time at all she and Harry are in love, and she has converted him to a brand new ideology (he was a pushover) based on a rediscovery of all that was great about prehistory:
Everything was going swell, you know, matriarchy worked! Then men took over metalworking and used it to make more and more powerful weapons. And then they domesticated the horse….It’s not the horse’s fault but from then on it was just rape, rape, rape, war, war, war, capitalism, arrogance, slavery and wrecking the land. Everything became about men and their death wish.’
So now you may gather that subtlety is not the novel’s strong point. Or at least, not the point. No, this is a rampant celebration of women and, beneath a very witty prose surface, an utterly furious rant against some of the worst excesses of male behaviour. If you like your feminist novels to win you over gently, this is going to set your teeth on edge. But, and this is a big but, it is very, very amusing, and I have never known any other author milk so much comedy from the caps key and the exclamation mark. Nothing is quite real in this novel, there’s a cartoon buoyancy to the prose that even in the sad parts of the story can’t resist its innate jauntiness, and it’s real Marmite stuff. Readers are either going to love the voice or hate it, or possibly find it’s not enough to offset the bizarre events destined to make their political point with the delicacy of a sledgehammer. But as Lucy Ellman might say, the exaggeration WOULD BE THE POINT. And it is funny. And it is extremely well-written.
It’s been called the best feminist novel of the decade or the new millennium or something (the original quote proved impossible to track down, though much reference is made to it in the reviews already out there), which is of course a very dangerous thing to say about any book. And this made me think about other feminist novels I’ve read, and ponder the fact that it is not always the most reader-friendly of genres. Monique Wittig’s Les Guérilleres is the current title holder of Most Eccentric Novel Ever, about lesbian warriors torturing men and was notably thin on jokes; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is superb but depressed me for weeks afterwards, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is no cheerier, nor is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Quite a few are a bit of a slog (poor Doris Lessing, her Golden Notebooks do spring to mind, rather). So Mimi represents something of a new direction in being a) full of comedy and b) not about women being unbearably oppressed and badly treated. The way it makes political points, however, is to put fish in a barrel and shoot them. Nothing to say this isn’t valid, but readers can be a contrary bunch who enjoy a good old wrestle with the issue first. Oh and before I forget, I must mention the most bonkers appendix, EVER, which takes up more than 50 pages and which I had no intention of reading. I mean, I like my experimental fiction, but when the story is over, it’s over.
So all in all, Mimi is one of those intriguing novels that is part genius and ingenious and part crazy and certifiable. At the level of the sentence, I enjoyed and admired it, and chortled a lot. When I took a few steps back and thought about the whole, I had my doubts. It will not appeal to everyone. But if you are interested in feminist matters, or like zany fiction, or are just curious about trying something a bit different, then it’s worth a go.