In the 2004 film, The Libertine, Johnny Depp, playing the Earl of Rochester, delivers an acidic opening monologue, which begins, “Allow me to be frank at the commencement, you will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as you go on.”
The ego, as a mouthpiece for rebellion, as an exiled priest dispatching its sermon-of-self from a rogue pulpit, creates itself through voice. In the “Letter from the Editor” section of Elizabeth Ellen’s new novel, Person/a, the author states: “… I write this letter to you, dear reader, as both editor and author of this novel, with full awareness and with full admission that if there is a ‘Monster at the End of this Book,’ that monster is I. I am that monster. Let this then serve as an introduction.”
Guilt by association, with oneself, or rather with one’s dark twin, is a powerful force. It magnifies and distorts, blinds and minimizes, bars doors and seals windows. In her song, “Crucify,” Tori Amos sings: Got enough guilt to start my own religion. Guilt has been the fire-starter for many salvation/damnation projects throughout the ages.
Elizabeth Ellen is the author and editor of the new novel, Person/a, in which Elizabeth Ellen is also the main character. Sort of. Like Laura Palmer’s travails in the Black Lodge, E.E. has been subject to a recursive splitting of the “I,” and we are left with self-repeating, existential traces of someone who may or may not be Elizabeth Ellen. We, the readers, are being asked to not just read a novel, but to bear witness to the simultaneous building-up and disintegration of a persona. To attend a birthing and funeral at the same time. For more on this, listen to Jim Carrey’s metaphysical podcast: Not Being Here Now, or, There’s No “I” in Jim.
The Elizabeth Ellen that I encountered in the pages of Person/a is a far cry from a monster. She is a wounded human, impaled on a loop cycle, writing her heart out, writing the sickness out of her head. It is a novel, functioning as a prolonged exorcism, that digs its scalpel into the nature of obsession, and by turns dissects a fractured psyche. It is also a binge, a torch song, a séance, and a shadow-boxing match which is rigged.
The poet, Robert Lowell, spoke about the best poems, the most personal ones, as being “gathered crumbs from a lost cake.” Elizabeth Ellen, in architecting a novel from “lost crumbs,” has created a searing inner-portrait of the artist as a riddle unto herself. A failed love affair with a younger man has left her sifting through wreckage, or to put it more accurately: has made sifting through wreckage her primary point of existence. Though E.E. is forty years old at the start of the book (there are four different “books,” or volumes, covering different periods of time and different emotional climates, each hinging upon the central axis of “obsession”), her core wounding, and guttural responses, derive from an unscabbed adolescent self. Deep wounds set us back. If you want to time travel, have your heart broken. You will become six again, or nine, or fourteen. This quality, which resonates throughout E.E.’s narrative, infuses the novel with a sort of inverse romanticism, or youthful claim on suffering. This book sings it bones with unrelenting candor, with its illusions worn on its sleeve.
Repetition never happens, but breaks forth, since it is ‘recollected forwards.”—Harold Bloom
In a sense there is no beginning, middle and end to Person/a. It is a series of repetitions and modulations building a frenzied, cyclical momentum, the hell-circle that every addict knows. And how, sometimes, the light at the end of the tunnel is just a hypnotic flicker, or false beacon, in what amounts to a continuing network of tunnels. E.E.’s “obsession” becomes her way of tunneling out, or deeper in, no longer able to distinguish the difference, if any, between the two. Psychic crisis has torn her asunder, and she confesses, “I wanted two different lives at once and quite often I felt as though I were two different people, or one person in need of two ways of living.” The tension resulting from wanting to live these two lives, or reconcile their different needs, keeps E.E. stranded in a state of flux and dissent. She never happens, but breaks forth.
The novel opens with a series of rejection emails, from different agents, generally expressing admiration for Elizabeth Ellen’s voice and work, followed by the reasons why they’re deciding to pass on Person/a. It is the perfect beginning for a book that will cover rejection on multiple levels. It also speaks to perseverance, or downright doggedness, as the “rejected” book is the one you are now reading, it is an assertion that has made good on itself. This book had to be written in the same way that Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise had to be written. Scott had been spurned by Zelda, and he needed to prove to her, and to the world, that he was an exceptional somebody, a literary force to be reckoned with. “Ian” is E.E.’s Zelda, and she will show him, through the writing of Person/a, that she is a force to be reckoned with, a literary Biggie Smalls, one hand on her crotch, the other arching a middle finger, scowling—How do you like me now, motherfucker?
… the blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged train and transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”— B.F. McKeever, “Cane as Blues”
Elizabeth Ellen is a slow-burn soloist when it comes to balancing the near-comic, near-tragic implications of her blues. Her style is one of lucid insistence, a droning, raw-nerve intimacy which recalls Marguerite Duras and Jean Rhys. It is also a low-frequency humming that gets in your head and stays there, and Ellen’s calculated use of empty space amplifies that effect.
I want only slightly more than you are capable of offering anyone else. This line floats alone on a single page, a sad tatter in a white void.
E.E.’s “persona” also finds itself at the mercy of social media, as she tries to negotiate its vortexes and minefields. “Things I could no longer envision myself enduring: the departure airport, the flight, sitting next to a stranger, the arrival airport, the taxi ride, the city, the reading, people at the reading, people who asked us to do the reading, the possibility of Sadie being at the reading, the possibility of other young women who may or may not have done drugs with Ian being at the reading, the physical act of reading, of standing in front of these people who may or may not have fucked or done drugs with Ian, of having to make small talk with them after, of being asked to do drugs with them after, of being written about in blog posts or on social media as the one who won’t do drugs with them after.”
If Elizabeth Ellen exists, I would tell her it was like she channeled the anthemic scorn of Alanis Morrisette’s “You Outta Know” through Anais Nin, in her own inimitable way. And if Elizabeth Ellen doesn’t exist, at least she can invent herself.
Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, John Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. To see more of his work, visit johnbiscello.com