ELIZABETH ELLEN IS ELIZEBETH ELLEN: A REVIEW OF PERSON/A
by Elizabeth Ellen
616 p / $19
Disclaimer: I hate writing book reviews. I wrote two early in my publishing ‘career,’ then gave it up because it is difficult to write them without using the bullshit language that is found on the backs of books and in book reviews.
Some ‘book review’ words that i would use to describe Person/A:
“Seminal… luminous…ground-breaking… the most important book of our time… a true tour-de-force.” –Juliet Escoria, The Fanzine
I first read Person/a in late 2013. At that time it was shorter, more incomplete, and had a different name. Even in that rough form, the work immediately struck me as something different, something powerful.
This version of Person/a, now a 600-page brick of a book, arrived in my mailbox on the same day as a more conventional novel, one that was put out by a mainstream press. I took them out of their envelopes, flipped through both. The big press novel felt like any other book. Person/a felt like an animal.
If it is actually a novel at all, it is a collage-y one— of quotes, emails, letters, texts. Its format is elliptical, with three Volume Ones, each retreading and then fragmenting the same story. There are two endings, two love interests, the central role alternates between two professions, the child of the narrator alternates between two genders. Each of these elements is mutually exclusive: the central role is not both a musician and a writer, he is either one or the other.
At face value, Person/a is a love story, or rather an unrequited love story. The narrator, named Elizabeth Ellen, pines over a writer (sometimes musician) called Ian Kaye, whom she has only spent a handful of hours with face-to-face. Their romantic relationship is never consummated, yet she spends the better part of seven years obsessing over it, obsessing over him, until the him is less a person than a projection of the things Elizabeth Ellen wants and is afraid of. It is also, as the character says to her husband in Volume Three, “as much about the writing and publishing of such a book as the book itself; about the effect it has on the writer’s spouse and child and family and friends… it’s now about being a female writer/artist and being married/a mother and the repercussions of both/all.” Which is true. Person/a is very much an Important Feminist Work, in that it illustrates the pains of Trying To Have It All, but, like any good Feminist Work, it only addresses this through action and experience, rather than theory.
Person/a is also very much an Important Feminist Work, in that it subverts what we expect from women. I am reminded of an interview I recently heard on Fresh Air, about the poet Robert Lowell, who, while manic, did and said horrible things to his wife, but was often forgiven because he was brilliant and male and ill. In Person/a, Elizabeth Ellen is not Elizabeth Hardwick but Lowell, not the forgiving sainted spouse but the sinner, oftentimes mistaking the term “Artist” for “Asshole.” But instead of the conventional cheating or substance abuse, Elizabeth Ellen’s main method of destruction is obsession—something stranger and thus less understandable than the usual routes, because not only is it destructive, it is creepy.
“I’m the villain/hero of this book.” –p. 441
Under Elizabeth Ellen’s gaze, Kaye becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Boy—obsessed over, rather than loved, because of what he represents, rather than who he is. Throughout, Elizabeth Ellen is conscious of what she is doing (both Elizabeth Ellen the writer and the narrator), describing herself as a “Narcissistic/Sadist/Bitch,” realizing this book is less about her obsession than it is about her. Elizabeth Ellen doesn’t care about being a role model or being admirable or making you like her. Instead she is a complete person, with deep flaws that she refuses to apologize for. She is selfish and also dishonest, disregarding her family and even herself in favor of her work.
In more than one way, Person/a reminds me of Eminem circa 2000, both middle fingers up, trash-talking the entire music industry. Besides being a big Fuck You to society’s expectations of women and romance, it is a big Fuck You to the literary world. The book opens with five rejection letters from agents, all sounding eerily similar: four use the phrase “step aside,” as though the book is a drunk and soiled homeless person in the middle of the sidewalk, all five follow the same formula of 1) often-detailed praise, 2) followed by vague and somewhat incomprehensible criticism. The criticism is different in exact phrasing, but all of it says without saying, “It doesn’t do what I wanted it to do,” aka, “It doesn’t do what novels are supposed to do.”
Which is exactly the point. The weaknesses of the book are also its strengths. It is repetitive, fragmented. The narrator is an unlikeable narcissist. Her motivations aren’t entirely clear. The book is less about plot and more about the narrator herself. At least 100 pages of it could probably be cut.
It is a work that firmly refuses to compromise, refuses to be less like itself and more of what publishing wants it to be, refuses to be a novel that resembles other novels that resemble something invented centuries ago, something that Big Publishing usually expects to be mimeographed with exactness because for some reason this is what they think will sell the most copies. If you cut those 100 pages, the book would be something else entirely.
Person/a refuses to be a product; it refuses to be anything other than Elizabeth Ellen’s story. She will tell it to you exactly the way she wants it to be told, detractors and good advice be damned. All of these “flaws” are not flaws but self-inflicted scars, adding to the work because this is a book about a mind that just won’t let go, that is fragmented by memory and time, is intent on picking the ugliest scabs. My only true criticism of the book is that the font is so small that if you read too much at once it’ll give you a headache.
(Also, the last time I read the book, there was a scene in which the narrator masturbates anally with the handle of a hairbrush. This scene has been deleted. I don’t think Elizabeth should have deleted it.)
Disclaimer: I consider Elizabeth Ellen to be a close friend.
Caveat to this disclaimer: I find it difficult (maybe impossible) to be close to another writer without finding them to be exceptionally talented.
An anecdote about Elizabeth Ellen:
Some of our friends decided to meet in a city for a reading that happened to occur near Elizabeth’s birthday. Because Elizabeth is always doing nice things for us (for example, when I barely knew her, I went to Ann Arbor for a reading that happened to occur on my birthday; she presented me with a personalized Eminem cake at the reading), I wanted for us to do something nice for her. In a 100-thread-long “secret” email discussion, we decided to throw her a surprise animal party—there was a local conservatory that would bring over several small, exotic animals to your apartment for a reasonable fee. A pancake tortoise, a fennec fox, a fruit bat. It seemed perfect, because Elizabeth is an animal lover, and also because who doesn’t want to pet cute, weird things.
The night before, Elizabeth found out that we were planning a surprise for her. She, in short, flipped out. I don’t know why, exactly. I think mostly she didn’t like that we were doing things she couldn’t control ‘behind her back.’ So we cancelled the party. I felt bad, for being the one to suggest it, and also disappointed because I wanted to pet a fennec fox. But mostly I felt annoyed with Elizabeth, for refusing to trust us, for refusing to let us surprise her.
Later, as I was driving to meet my friends, it occurred to me: Of course. Of course Elizabeth would react this way. This was not necessarily a failing on her part, but a failing on our part to understand Elizabeth’s nature—her fear of not being in control, which sometimes leads to ‘out of control’ behaviors. (Just like the Elizabeth Ellen in the book.)
I felt similarly to the way that Elizabeth has decided to publish Person/a. This is not her only book that she will publish on SF/LD this year: there is also a 400+ page poetry collection, and an interlinked collection of short stories. All of them, amazing. This move frustrates me. I was frustrated that Elizabeth would not wait until she found at least one of these books what I thought to be a proper home, i.e. at a big press with all the resources that come from publishing on a big press. But then, later, when I voiced this to her (or maybe I only voiced part of this to her, hard to remember), she explained she didn’t want someone to make her change it, she wanted to choose the cover, she wanted complete control. And, like with the animal party, something clicked, and I thought, once again, Of course.
Another anecdote about Elizabeth Ellen:
In late 2014, there was the time that Alt Lit “died,” when people were outed as rapists and accused of being rapists (not the same thing), first by the “community” and then later by the mainstream media. In all the chaos, Elizabeth decided to write an essay about her own take on it. She sent it to me, and several of her other friends, wanting feedback. It was an excellent essay, saying important things that no one else seemed willing or able to say. It was also, as they say, “highly problematic.” In my notes, I pointed out things that I thought would upset people unnecessarily, or were especially offensive, suggesting she take them out, trying my best to gently explain why writing or even thinking these things was not necessarily a good idea.
The next morning, she published it on Hobart, having taken out nothing. I never asked her why but I think it was because she wanted her words to be ‘pure,’ to not retract anything out of fear of what other people would think. I think she didn’t take anything out because she thought if she did it would be her being ‘fake,’ which, in Elizabeth Ellen’s world, is synonymous with being cowardly, which, to her, is a mortal sin. Which is, in some ways, the entire point of her essay.
I posted the link to my Facebook, stating that I disagreed with some things it said but that I thought it was important. This resulted in several people attacking me, attacking Elizabeth. People I don’t even know blocked me. People later called me a ‘rape apologist.’
This pales in comparison to what happened to Elizabeth. Opinion pieces on her opinion piece appeared, painting her as nearly as awful of a person as the men who were originally accused and attacked. A press publishing an anthology of “provocative women writers” (ironically) pulled her writing. Friends became former friends, bookstores refused to allow her to read and pulled SF/LD titles from their shelves. Understandably, this shook Elizabeth, something she covers in depth in her forthcoming poetry collection (titled Elizabeth Ellen). It made me wonder what would have happened if Elizabeth had cut the parts that I, and likely many of the other friends she sent the essay to pre-publication, suggested. She could have said the same thing in a way that didn’t piss off quite as many people.
But that’s the confusing thing about Elizabeth. She has an uncompromising brazenness in both her life and her writing, but sometimes this brazenness tilts over to a form of self-sabotage, self-sabotage as a method of self-protection.
And maybe this is the most interesting facet of this book. What do the 600+ pages and the tiny font and the opening of rejection letters and the publishing on her own press and the only making it available through the SF/LD website and only for a limited time really do? Are they middle fingers? Are they the bold acts of an unapologetic artistic? Or are they protective, of not just Elizabeth Ellen (the person) but of her daughter and spouse? And the truth is they are both. The thorns are sharp because they intend to ward off. The book wants to show you exactly who Elizabeth Ellen (both the person and the character) really is, what they went through, what they thought, while also masking and distorting it. The book is about Ian Kaye’s persona, and the persona that is their relationship, but ultimately it is about Elizabeth Ellen’s—vulnerable, impervious, strong, easily wounded, brazenly honest, deceitful. And it is this conflict that makes the work so distinct and important and unique. This is ultimately what makes Person/a not just a novel but part of a new art form.
“This novel is an attempt at self-preservation.” –p. 396
“The true purpose of this novel is self-destruction. (The destruction – or deconstruction – of self as the only true means of liberation.)” –p. 570