Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#2]

The follow-up to Lucy Ellmann’s universally underappreciated masterstroke Dot in the Universe (see below) is another acerbic chunk of life-affirming misery and black comedy.

Doctors & Nurses is, like Dot, marketed in the manner of a chick-lit romp (shame on you, Bloomsbury) but contains a distinctively despicable and disgusted heroine, far removed from the moral cosiness of this genre. Jen (three-letter protagonists seem to be Ellmann’s dish) is an obese self-loathing hump of woman: a nurse, rampant fornicator, and admirer of the disappointingly named Dr. Roger Lewis – “a name full of anticlimax, a name full of COLLAPSE.”

She occupies a small room in the doctor’s surgery, pining for the slothful Dr. Lewis – a man more preoccupied with football than saving the lives of his patients. In fact, he has a penchant for medical malpractice – poking and prodding his patients into their graves while delighting in the squalor of his attic dwellings (a cluttered bunk of decrepitude which contains his irrelevant and mad wife). Jen, it turns out, is equally disinterested in healing the sick.

Jen and the doctor soon lock organs in an awkward sexual grapple, united in their disregard for the human body. As their relationship veers toward marriage, Jen encounters a series of setbacks – her spouse’s mad wife, some cadavers to whom she might be related, and policemen determined to convict her due to her plumpness. In a mad dash, she runs into the woods, sleeps naked, and gets back in touch with her universally loathed body.

What is the novel about, I hear you cry? Pfft. Jen is a caricature of the self-loathing Ellmann sees in modern women. She suggests, in explicit terms, women should appreciate their genitals more, and shows us a modest sample of the vagina on p29. (Hate to ruin the surprise). It also seems to be about the indifference of the NHS – how doctors are more interested in lunch than curing lung cancer. Controversial (and mad).

For the theorists, Ellmann sticks her snout into notions of what a modern novel should contain, throwing in (irrelevant) murders to please her readers and scolding us for our love of blood and death. In Ellmann’s world, blood and death are everywhere – why are we so preoccupied with gruesomeness and gore?

Also, the novel is eminently postmodern, although casually so – apart from the persistent CAPITALS and intertextual asides, the novel runs on sheer contempt. (The GOOD kind!) There is also an overwhelming list of malaises that runs for some six pages: the various ways we can DIE or SUFFER in this miserable life. Though somehow Ellmann makes this spot-your-illness activity FUN!

The most important aspect of the book is the sizzling speed, bile and guts with which Ellmann writes. Her novels appear sporadically (two in this decade so far – two in the 1990s) which suggests a great period of bile-simmering. Imagine someone bottling their spleen for half a decade and releasing it upon their beloved manuscript to cause HAVOC.

When Ellmann releases the hellhounds, it’s so devilishly entertaining.

The Independent also informs me this novel is an academic masterpiece, but I’ll leave that for the chattering classes (or Michael Bywater) to decide.

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