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Magnum Oh Puss

In Reviews of Our Books on June 28, 2013 at 11:39 am

Mimi — reviewed by Suzy Romer 25.5.13

There is a fire in this book but that´s not what makes it incendiary. There are doctors in this book but that´s not what makes it healing. There is a glorious love story at the centre of this novel but that´s not why there should be a copy under every woman´s pillow. There is sex (good!) and violence (bad!) depicted as they should be, but that´s not why men should read this book just before bedtime.  This is a roaring beast of a text which prods us and shakes us out of our media-induced TORPOR of fake modernity ( or modernist fakery?). It takes us on an emotional adventure of epic proportions and then invites us to take arms against a sea of terrorists (the mad, bad old men) by giving women lots of money and sex. Sound crazy? You bet your ass it´s crazy but you´ll love it.

Our narrator is Harrison Hanafan, a plastic surgeon who LITERALLY falls head over heels for the angel-faced Mimi, one of the great literary creations of the century. She is a professional speech writer and coach and has opinions on everything which are as refreshing as they are extreme and thought-provoking. “Mimi on power suits: Power suits don´t work. Power works,” (p.95) or, on another occasion,“Quilts are stitched with loathing. That´s what´s good about ´em!”(p85) Harrison is more or less over his newly ex-girlfriend Gertrude although she has not entirely finished with him. We are treated to delicious dollops of juicy information about her rich, pretentious and ultimately hollow life. I want to read the full numbered list of reasons she bugged Harrison! My favourite is no.224: “Gertrude likes to come across all scatterbrained and laid-back, like she was just some simple goose girl who leaves things to chance. Like hell.” One of her most despicable moments is as an influencial arts administrator who ignores Harrison´s sister in favour of good-looking male artists. All the arts grants go to them while Bee Hanafan, a talented sculptor, is obliged to cross the Atlantic to end up in Canterbury in order to make a living. In his solitude, Harrison meets Bubbles the cat who befriends him and teaches him the essential aspects of love and affection so that Mimi can build on firm foundations. To my joy, Mimi has the wisdom that Anita Loos (Red Haired Woman, The Women) and Dorothy Whipple (Someone at a Distance) among others have tried so hard to impart to us. Many men are not invincible when it comes to sex and a momentary weakness with a determined rival should not necessarily be condemned unconditionally by the woman at the cost of love and sexual partnership.

Ellmann´s style and thematic material is pleasingly familiar from previous books – she is sweet and shocking at turns, there are lots of lists, there are enough words in italics, there are unpredictable catastrophes, and a love-hate relationship with society – but in Mimi there is a melding of championed themes which come together in exquisite harmony (definitely more Shostokovich than Mozart), an appropriate metaphor for a book which is punctuated by musical extracts which have significance for Harrison. For this reader at least, this book is her magnum opus.

This book made me write all over the margins (it´s my own copy). At first I wrote as if I  were making university notes for an essay. As the book went on, however, I started using my most beautiful handwriting to decorate the margins and added drawings to illustrate the text, much as members of religious orders were inspired to do centuries ago. There is something that primitive about the impact of this book. Reading it as a woman of 37 (who knows Persephone and Virago), I cannot understand why I have never read anything so immediate and stirring before now. Ellmann applies common sense and logic to many aspects of modern life and comes up with terrifying and thrilling facts all over the place. She addresses simple questions I have never even formulated before. These range from the seemingly frivolous to the deeply disturbing. Why is liking cushions a gender issue? What do I reply to someone who says “You´re not one of those feminists are you”? Why have I always undervalued the ability to sew and make jam? Why am I frightened to walk home alone at night? Why do I regularly cry when I hear national and international news about men, women and children being abused and killed? Ellmann identifies enough everyday misogyny in myriad aspects of modern life (pop music, advertising, fashion, the “beauty” industry, porn) to knock any so-called post-feminists off their high horses.

There are very dark moments in this book (I won´t be going back to Canterbury soon) but after identifying the problems, she reminds us of the positive presence and achievements of women throughout the ages. There are so many symbols (egg, moon, heart, butterfly) which I have always loved but now they have been re-identified as symbols of womanhood and femininity, a set of “girl guides”, as it were, to navigate the male universe I´ve grown up in and accepted for so long. Ellmann rescues the traditions of quilt-making and jam production, everyday cooking, cleaning and the creation of coziness and peace from their scorned corners and gives them the credit and praise they deserve. She also reclaims great sex for women and reminds us of the importance and potential of pleasure for everyone if we could just wipe out the stereotypical norms of the media and porn industry.

If only Harrison had given his speech at my graduation ceremony where the female speaker lamented contemporary society and said that “problems like drug use and homosexuality will not go away” (enough said?). Harrison demands respect and money for women on a world level so that they can use their new status and power to save and rebuild the world. He argues convincingly that his proposals are no less strange than leaving the world in the hands of the men who are exploiting and destroying it for their own ends. The book finishes with a real call to action, a revolution of values and actions with plausible benefits and tremendous possibilities. I may have to brush up on my pre-history to learn about the full benefits of matriarchies before I cut out and send off my membership form.

I have given this book permanent residency on my bedside table. Initially, this was while I read it from beginning to end. Now, it is staying on as a general reference work and moment of solace from my future bedtime reads which won´t always provide the blast of fresh air which this book does. My suggestions for future editions is to include a system of chapter numbers and verses for quick reference use, maybe an index, and a few more blank pages at the end for one´s own lists.

“Who made world history? Not the most reasonable people, the madmen. So if painting is the mirror of a time, it must be mad to have the true image of what a time is.”
Max Ernst,on Monitor, BBC, 1961

(copyright: Suzy Romer)