Belabor of Love: Review of PERSON/A by Elizabeth Ellen
by A.E. Weisgerber
PART I: Review 411
TRUTH: The best possible review of this book would be one written by the book’s author. The best review of this book is delivered by reading it.
So, I’m not going to write a big rehash, but here’s what I can tell you/tl;dr edition: I’ve never read anything like it, I think it’s a curiosity worth $19, and she’s the hero of this work.
She is Elizabeth Ellen, and if you read her debut novel, she’s not going to make it easy for you. She’s going to print it up in a nice, squinty, 6-point font (coyly, a fetching serif). It’s going to be an awkward-sized book, stiff and heavy as a new hymnal. She’s going to begin every section with a half-dozen quotes, like a drunk pulling down chairs in her wake to thwart readers in pursuit. She’s going to insist none of it might be true, some of it might be, and you probably should or should not believe her anyway. This is the best case of reverse psychology since my friend, in a downtown NYC effort to sell micro-paintings by Yamagata, tripled sales by locking the gallery door.
This work examines the concept of what a persona is to the nth degree. If you need a definition, God knows I always do, here’s one from Kit Wheeler’s tremendous Literary Terms page.
“PERSONA (Plural, personae or personas; Latin,”mask”): An external representation of oneself which might or might not accurately reflect one’s inner self, or an external representation of oneself that might be largely accurate, but involves exaggerating certain characteristics and minimizing others. One of the most famous personae is that of the speaker in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Here, the Irish author Swift, outraged over Britain’s economic exploitation of Ireland, creates a speaker who is a well-to-do English intellectual, getting on in years, who advocates raising and eating Irish children as a means of economic advancement. Another famous persona is Geoffrey Chaucer’s narrator in The Canterbury Tales, who presents himself as poetically inept and somewhat dull. Contrast with alter ego and poetic speaker.
I received my copy of this book when Hobart (SF/LD Books is a division of Hobart Publishing) tweeted it would send a copy to any student who dm’ed them; of course, being a student of life, I hopped to it. I was supposed to be writing lessons, writing my own novel, grinding out a short story for a workshop… and so a Tweet targets me for procrastination and I’m not going to look away.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have a connection to EE at the moment, only in the sense that I have a MS “in progress” or in queue with SF/LD, of which EE is the editor. I sent the MS to SF/LD because a writing bud who looked at the MS said EE might be a good fit. So I did send it to her, and it is in some nebulous queue at the moment, and I have no reason to believe it will be declined or accepted, so maybe that colors this review a bit? It may or may not. I might write differently as a fiction author vs a reviewer. I might care or I might not. But I’m an open book so, there: full disclosure.
So, I wrote EE via the Submittable “Notes” box in my work in progress at Hobart SF/LD’s queue, because why not. I infer from the novel that she’s not averse to these types of sidewinder contact methods our world affords. Here’s what I proposed:
“Dear elizabeth ellen —
Hobart sent me a review copy, and I have written a review, which I’ll post today on my blog. I loved PERSON/A, and if you are willing to write a review of your own book, I’d be happy to publish it as a precursor to my review. That might be the right kind of meta this work deserves. I can’t think of anything I might have to say about it that would top what you might say in a review, so let me know and I’ll put your review alongside mine, or you can add your own review of my review of you as a comment.
So, if she forwards a review to me, or a review of my review, I will slap it right up. <3 Now, my review of PERSON/A.
Part I: REVIEW:
Potential titles I considered for this review: “American Histrionics X,” “Hell Yeah,” “No Expectations,” and “Nuh uh. Yuh huh.” Or, see video at bottom of this review for more details, for what may have been the optimal review title: “The Treachery of Literature.”
Bold move: PERSON/A begins with six decline letters, one from EE’s own mother.
Genius move: She dedicates the book to herself.
Nice move: You know how Faulkner has that 5-word chapter in As I Lay Dying? Elizabeth Ellen has a few of those: “I have real feelings.” “I am never drinking Red Stag whiskey again.”
In sum: It’s a book that tells only half the story of a torrid two-night stand, filled with miscues and subtext that linger in the sexy protagonist’s (and her willing but tentatively absent antagonist’s) imagination. Not since Allie Caulfield has an absent character carried so much weight.
She replays the affair with her antagonist, altering the narrative as necessary. Is his name Lee? Ian? Is the vacation in Jamaica? Mexico? We’re thinking on it.
But I’m thinking, too, as its reviewer: is this a great novel? I use standard measures, Maxine Hairston’s big five: timelessness, universality, truthfulness, effective/innovative use of language, morality. By those measures? I think PERSON/A is pretty great.
Is it timeless? Maybe not, thanks to its references to tech, but I think it works in terms of saying something to American women in particular, who hear feminist messages yet are ensconced in a patriarchal society, who might feel as the protagonist of this novel does: “caught between asserting myself as a fiercely independent woman, and craving male domination.”
Universal? Yes, I think so. I think people generally understand one cannot decide who loves them, only whom they love. It’s generally understood that one’s own happiness should not solely depend on the approval of others. Nothing important should hinge on a whim.
She’s got truthfulness in spades, to the point of pornography once or twice. A little cringey. Can I say it’s groundbreaking and literary in the way it ejaculates all over the backs of its predecessors? Did I just say that? Er, ah. Quick, here’s a video:
Meanwhile, back in my prudie review… Is EE’s language pushing new boundaries? Is it effective? I think at times the writer expects too much of the reader, which is reflective of the novel’s contents. The larger games being played in the text with gender and identity are interesting. Does it matter if her child is a son or a daughter? or her lover a poet or musician? The vacation in Jamaica or Mexico? Not really. Sometimes she switches up one and the other on the same page. Those are easy enough to follow, those details being signposts only for the thematic highway. But the smaller nuances, like the broaching of non-fiction elements in a fictional text, the coded/non-traditional use of italics, the intended impact of the numerous quoted materials alluded to throughout, at times lost this reader? For EE, the “reassembling of memories to better suit an adults recollection of the situation” are personal. So, like my opening metaphor with my friend selling art, but locking the door to drive up interest, sometimes make me think hey: fuck you. From this reader’s perspective, the overtly personal is alienating and ineffective, but it may be exactly what she’s going for as a writer, too.
Finally, is PERSON/A a moral tale? Indeed it is. EE is saying something about writing, and the veneer of the writing life, that I don’t have to love to appreciate. I mean, think of Gatsby. That narrator, Nick Carraway, is a bit of a douche. He believes his own lies, but he’s damaged and he’s our guy on the inside, so we need him in the novel. We can tolerate him–he saw things in the war ffs–without accepting him. EE is a bit Carraway. She’s our gal in Iowa at readings on train cars, with enough of a money cushion to inspire hatred and jealousy in her literary peers (she being the beneficiary of a fabled financial unicorn, the “generation-skipping trust). The protagonist of PERSON/A in some ways functions as the author’s and the reader’s mutual measuring stick.
I think the novel EE has obsessed into existence here has a lot of the qualities of greatness, and the innovation is in her admission that she can’t get her own fictional persona to behave any more properly than its creator. She makes concessions to the reader: “I realize now I’ve left out the majority of ways….,” or “I have presented myself as the woman in the movie who has an unfounded obsession, when in reality it was a more mutual obsession, a mutual inability to close communications.” I like this about the novel.
I love this book. It’s challenging, but she’s gaming the whole way through. Maybe even forget the comparison to Nick Carraway. Maybe she’s more a Tyler Durden, or Kirk Lazarus from Tropic Thunder: she’s the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude.
Closing thought: we have a Rene Magritte situation in PERSON/A. Ceci n’est pas une Elizabeth Ellen. It’s her, but it’s not. Just don’t stare at this eye-ruining 6-point font for too long, or you might start hearing Radiohead’s “Creep” on a quiet loop. You might not have the power and control necessary to deny this fact: you really dig this book.
I rate it 5 out of 5.
One more video, why not. Here’s a quick lesson on Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which is so comparable to what EE is doing with her novel.
PERSON/A by Elizabeth Ellen | Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2017 | ISBN: 978-0-9896950-6-0 | 610 pages | $19 Print