Lucy and Todd

Peter Burnett on MIMI

In Reviews of Our Books on October 4, 2013 at 10:04 am

The novelist, Peter Burnett, published this review of MIMI on his blog, It includes a great rant on the formula followed by most book reviews these days (in PB’s opinion):

The world is a misogynist tizzy, not because it dislikes women, but because men simply want it all their own way. Men want to make war, and they want to make money.  And when they make all that money, these men decide that the most fun thing to spend it on — is war. The agenda is completed and while mankind moves to adjourn, Lucy Ellmann appears with MIMI. Like mysterious lights out of the darkness of the unknown, Lucy Ellmann’s book will astound you from page one, and if you’re not prepared for it, you may end up wondering why there are not more novels like this. The point is perhaps made too clearly for lovers of obfuscation to see — but this is a womanifesto with a mission to change the world.

As unreal as they may appear at the time, Lucy Ellmann’s ideas nevertheless form tangible plans which must be acted upon, and that is what makes the novel MIMI different from virtually every other one out there. THAT is an achievement. Mankind is about to be woken up from a five millennial sleep — and what has disturbed their slumber is MIMI.

As a film enthusiast, I enjoy when literature hits cinema head on, as it does in MIMI. Film and books meeting like this isn’t an important collision, but these are all cultural referents, and as an armchair semiotician, I know they have something to say. The protagonist in MIMI is a plastic surgeon, and although these guys do appear in the novels of our age, their real dramatic and comedic home is in the movies — and there are plenty movie moments in MIMI.

Yes — plastic surgery has long been a staple of the horror genre — the best being Eyes Without a Face (1960) — but ‘women’s films’ such as Ash Wednesday (1973) and Once is not Enough (1975) have made virtue of it — as did Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) which had Peter Lorre playing surgeon Dr Herman Einstein — and Seconds (1966), which apparently frightened Beach Boys composer Brian Wilson so much that he didn’t return to a cinema at all, until he braved the gates in 1982 and saw E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

The value of plastic surgery as both unfortunate fact of life and metaphor will not be lost on you — and lovers of the novel form, too, will see that it’s all change in MIMI. It’s possible that some may read MIMI and think that ‘nothing is happening’ — but then they will realise WHAT A GOOD TIME THEY ARE HAVING. I had an AMAZING time reading MIMI, and little of this was predicated on the traditionals of story telling — it was based on the jokes which are OMG good and the accumulations of ideas, words and scenery which make for a constantly shifting reading experience.  The back stories are the best thing about it, and the American childhood evoked is heartbreakingly true.

Yeh — I like that — ‘a reading experience’ — because that’s what it is.  To tell of a tale, MIMI is the story of one man’s five month love sabbatical, but as a book it ends up changing the world — you’re watching a cat lick its paws for page after page, movies, amazing revelations, grotesques, guignols and the satirising of Manhattanites and their bodily obsessions — and it ends up changing the world, it really does.

As for the extras — the varied Appendix tucked away at the rear of MIMI, you don’t have to read these if you don’t want to. The extras in MIMI are in fact there to be got or not, and they provide a function that books (what we call THE BOOK) has lost — the surprise factor.  We are so used to films, which can end at any point, the audience does not know when — and this is something difficult to replicate in a book, which we have to pare down to the last page.  Oh yes readers — you strip away the story of a book like an orange, an artichoke, the last slices of cheese — and you know as well as I there has to be at least one book (THIS IS IT!) which demonstrates the fact.  MIMI is that book indeed, and it concludes 68 pages before it ends — another fine achievement.

When I’d finished MIMI, I decided to check out the reviews. You know what I mean — Telegraph, NY Times, Guardian — and I was pretty fairly surprised at the lack of passion or interest that I found. It’s true that the reviewers representing these and other institutions get through a lot of books in their literary day — but I felt cheated — for what MIMI demands is passion — change — and feeling. The reviewers liked the book, and made a few noises to that effect, but MIMI is the sort of book that should encourage you to take to the streets, shouting. It is after all, NEW.

Now you may not have noticed this and you may not care either, but when it comes to fiction, the book reviews follow the same tendency. An average 1,000 words review is always approached thus:

0-150 — The life of the author to date. Other books they have written. Observations on the oeuvre.

151-650 — Précis for Lazy Lumps. PRESENT EXAMPLE: “The narrator of Mimi is Harrison Hanafan, a New York plastic surgeon who blah blah blah blah.”

651-800 — A great book reviewer will deliver up to three examples of the author’s writing in this section.

801-900 — The equivalent of the porn “money shot”. This is where the reviewer will say what they think (Not what they FEEL!)

901-1000 — General Rant About Other Stuff on the Reviewer’s Mind

I’m screwed however — and this is the rub. I am publishing this review on a self-hosted website and not in a paper of weighty repute.  I am not an institution, but at least, the fact of my self-publishing this review allows me to tell you how MIMI made me feel — and it made me feel GREAT. Hence I have used plenty of CAPITALISATION in my review — because MIMI even made me feel warm and important — and that’s impressive, because I am a man. It may make women feel even better.

Thing is bub, is that readers prefer to FEEL rather than THINK. If you listen to what readers say this becomes apparent, but it doesn’t work for reviewers, who must present an intellectual façade. Thus a reviewer can’t be happy or frustrated with a work of fiction, but must place it in an intellectual context, offering comparison and critiques that are not normally relevant to readers (but may be FASCINATING to other reviewers).

In these newspapers, which are primarily now websites anyway, writers therefore give description, critical analysis, and an evaluation on the quality, meaning, and significance of a book.   Reviews focus on a book’s purpose, content, and authority — and if the book has no purpose, content, and authority, reviewers actually ASSIGN purpose, content, and authority.  Reviews in this form are no use in the context of MIMI.  What Lucy Ellmann’s MIMI demands is feeling, and change, and any intellectual assessment otherwise is doomed to failure.

So — if there is one thing that MIMI by Lucy Ellmann has taught us, it’s that it’s best to tell everybody how you feel. MIMI is a book which requires devotion and full immersion from the reader. MIMI demands of you no less a feat that you complete the reading of it and then immediately set out to change the world.

What has been missed — I FEEL — is how different MIMI is from everything else that’s been published in the last while-or-so — how funny it is, and how it has the potential to effect this world change that it proposes.

I can’t overlook the importance of this final factor. Changing the world is something that we aspire to when young, and in capturing this enthusiasm, and presenting it simply, MIMI has achieved something vital that is lost in the general slow, cud-like consumption of books ‘n’ films. Stamp your feet — do a Howard Beale and rant that you are ‘mad as hell’ — because a modest novel like MIMI has told you how simple it is to perfect our world.

The answer is weirdly Obama-esque, in a punning sense at least — because it’s all about CHANGE. I’ll leave you to read the book yourself and find out how easy it is going to be.

(PB, Oct. 3, 2013)

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