Comfortable in one's skin is a French phrase for a person of assurance and an agreeable command over his or her life. Lucy Ellmann has written us a character excruciatingly uncomfortable in her skin, but we should not figure a rigid, scratchy skin that imprisons and lacerates. On the contrary, the skin of Eloise is gossamer and all but inexistent. She is a soap bubble just before it bursts, in that split microsecond when the hues crumple.
Eventually there will be a bursting, in the shape of an utterly improbable tidal wave. It is not to be taken seriously. It is Ellmann, having spun her comically minatory fable, sending her character off. Since her book toys with a Pirandello-like confusion of author and character, it may even be Eloise sending herself off.
"Man or Mango" does for anxiety what "Oblomov" did for lethargy. Just as Goncharov's eponymous slugabed lampooned 19th century Russia's vast immobility, Ellmann's Eloise caricatures a febrile modern time of clangorous material connections and very faint social and personal ones.
She is past 30, with a modest financial inheritance and a gnawing sense of human disinheritance. Her mother died of a painful illness when she was little, and her father killed himself when she was older. A man she passionately loved went back to his wife. Her body is distasteful to her; the lipstick she discouragedly applies could be blood from a mortally wounded self-image.
Choosing "half-alive hermitude," she buys what is not really a secluded cottage--even here she registers failure--since another house abuts it, occupied by a family of "Nazis." She retreats from friends. When anyone approaches she stations herself between windows, if indoors, or circles behind a tree, if outdoors.
She recounts all this, and much more, reflecting upon a universe comprised entirely of worn-out circumstances and sinister symptoms. "Mango" is a journal of depressive misery, a black hole into which everything that Eloise sees, reflects upon or remembers sinks without trace. Without trace--but with a remarkable fizz and pop.
Ellmann, an American by birth (she is the daughter of the late Richard Ellmann, the literary biographer) and British by upbringing, long residence and--by now--rhythm, vocabulary and spelling, is a writer of piquant cross-grained oddity. Her lines are narrow, yet a lot happens between them. At a funeral she would be dressed in eccentric colors, and if you listened to her mutterings during the eulogy they would be jokes, and if you listened even harder, they would be sad ones.
Eloise's low-spirited moan, the heart of the book, manages to be remarkably buoyant. She has set up a salon in Purgatory. True, it is a salon of one-person conversations, of a prodigiously imaginative child arguing with her pet tapeworm. Readers will alternate--each in a different proportion-- between pleasurable startlement and wondering if it isn't time to leave.
Keeping busy, Eloise engages in a dizzying assortment of verbal excursions and broken-field runs. She makes splendidly absurd lists--for example, of the time it takes her to recover from each undesired encounter. Speaking to the postman: a half hour. If he has a package: one hour. Preparing to make phone call: days (indefinite). Making phone call: two hours. Another list details the things the world consists of. Among others: earth, seas, air, black holes, bees, igloos, the Titanic, flowers, rhododendrons (depression has wobbled her classifying), dugongs, hairdressers and "people who make it all hell."
Another list sets down "Worst Disasters in the British Isles." At the top stands "famine/typhus (Ireland)" with 1.5 million to 3 million dead. It goes down through Black Death (800,000), Lockerbie airplane bombing (270) to the London earthquake of 1580 (two). That "two" is the key to her condition. Eloise has no moral eyelids. Everything sears equally. She is obsessed with the Holocaust (she lists possessions confiscated from death-camp inmates), a noisy lawn mower, a tethered goat, men.
Under "pollution" in a list showing that everything in the world is men's fault: "If men didn't molest and abduct them, children could WALK to school, thus saving on petrol." Part of a dithyramb on the superiority of mangoes to men: "With even the most lethargic of men, there is still the threat of physical force. Not so with a mango. A mango's ears do not stick out. . . . A woman does not have to wash her hair for a mango. I have only known one mango that was no good."
Interspersed with these zigzag rocket flights are periodic crashes: yowls of dry night-lust and of mixed anger and longing for George. He is a baker and a poet whom she met traveling in the United States. She had her one passionate affair with him until conscience drove him back to his wife.
In sections ostensibly distinct from Eloise's monologues, George makes his appearance. He has, it seems, left his wife. He lives in London, where he teaches writing and is working on an epic poem about ice hockey. We hear his voice from time to time: bluff, angry, energetic, masculine--and unconvincing. The suspicion grows that Eloise is fantasizing him, a suspicion fortified by the dreadful scansion of his ice-hockey dactyls and the symmetry with which he yowls his own longing for her.
The book's second part is a drastic stylistic break. No longer are we inside Eloise's richly depressed monologues and George's real or imagined ramblings. A wacky tale replaces them.
Travelers converge on a country hotel in Connemara: Among them is Eloise, George, an obsessively devoted father and his little daughter (a wishful rewriting of Eloise's own childhood?), three larcenous old women, and Ed, who sends letter bombs to prominent women, grows giant vegetables and works as a burglar (among other things he has taken Eloise's cello).
It is an odd, comic and sometimes entrancing tale, one that grows both increasingly fantastic and increasingly ramshackle. Only toward the end, perhaps, will the reader begin to suspect its true nature, one that elevates the witty obsessions of the first part into a sorrowfulness between dream and madness.
Eloise's self-annihilating rant in the first part, although it suggests a larger and more universal lament, grows wearisome despite its wit. Obliterating herself, she succeeds almost too well. So it is a welcome thing when she goes on her adventures or seems to. Sunniness and assorted marvels drift in as she lifts from an obsessed to a possessed state. But Ellmann doesn't quite make it come off. The joining is awkward and not sturdy enough to fuse the exhilaration of apparent flight with the darkness of flight's fall.