Monday, 2 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#1]

Lucy Ellmann’s 2003 novel Dot in the Universe is a blistering tour de force of splenetic human insight, knee-bending satire, relentless stylistic abuse, and profound intelligence.

The novel centres around Dot – a semi-human shell devoid of any discernible life. Dot is a speck of nothingness aware of her basic insignificance in the cosmos and her status as merely another ‘dot’ in the universe. She ekes out a depressive bourgeois existence in the suburb of Jaywick Sands (which is routinely savaged for its suicidal dullness), having unfulfilling sex and bumping off old ladies. She then decides, upon fleeing her philandering husband, to take her life by leaping off the Forth Road Bridge.

Fair enough. Throughout the remaining 150 pages, she enters the bureaucratic nightmare of the underworld, haunts her former lover to retrieve proof of her ID, and wins the most exciting death contest. Her prize (after a brief and unsuccessful stint as a possum) is reincarnation in an equally depressive American suburb. Dot is, it seems, unsuited for this unfathomable world. She finds love, at last, through an incestuous union with her brother, but he – alas – goes on to kill himself despite being a scientific genius. So it goes.

Ellmann punctuates this bleak-sounding tale with shards of LOUD and CAPITALISED humour. The NY Times compares this style to a friend who writes ranting letters which seem to have their own insane logic, and I find this accurate – Lucy wallops the reader with her blunt vitriol, which is wildly entertaining and witty, but which BEGS to be taken seriously.

There is such FURY (I can’t help it – it’s addictive) behind Ellmann’s wit that makes this novel highly re-readable for almost any occasion, but which forces us to confront what despicable, sagging lumps we are. She directs her spite towards scientists (there’s a rant in here that will outrage devout realists) and tears impetuously through the innumerable inane quirks of existence – exposing the fundamental fraud of human endeavour. Often within the same paragraph.

Ellmann’s work is a strange cross between vicious stand-up comedy (Alexei Sayle or Bill Hicks springs to mind), Wodehousian whimsy, and the shrugging misanthropy of Kurt Vonnegut. Quite a cocktail! The packaging of her books suggests postmodern chick-lit, but the scope of this work is too broad, and Dot is too inscrutable a heroine to attract that audience. Plus, the central theme of this novel is DEATH (that old favourite), and the challenge this hurdle presents to people attempting to fill the LIFE portion they are allotted.

Dot in the Universe is almost certainly a modern classic. An infectious and cantankerous romp through quite profound territory, handled with humility, moral outrage and cheeky slabs of misanthropy. Any novel dealing with grand themes that leaves me feeling ELATED when I should be feeling MISERABLE is pulling the right strings. As Ellmann indicates, there is a great deal of mirth to be mined in self-loathing.

So I recommended this book to every mortal. If you’re even remotely human, you’ll take enormous pleasure in this dark, deranged and sublime comédie humaine. Ellmann has the closing WORDS! (From p13):

“Dot in the universe. Dot was insignificant, but who isn’t? So much EFFORT we put into life, all the feeding, clothing, educating, medicating, fornicating, masturbating, cleansing and conversing. All the ANXIETY. When it doesn’t really matter if a single person gets happy. The universe DOESN’T GIVE A DAMN.”


  1. Sounds like my kind of book. Thanks for this packed review.

  2. You would SPASM with pleasure reading this book. SPASM.