‘Dandruff and Bile’


Misanthropic, disease fixated, perpetually inflamed by petty grievances, lusty yet revolted by her body and its processes: The archetypal Lucy Ellmann heroine will be familiar to readers of her previous books, but she’s never been embodied quite so, well, abundantly until Jen, the formidable protagonist of Doctors & Nurses. Sweating and wheezing under the strain of her girth and rage, evenhanded in her loathing of self and other, Jen is a clanking factory of methane and dandruff and paranoid bile. (“Was she BORN angry? Nobody knows.”) She’s also, of all things, a nurse, albeit a murderously incompetent one, newly employed in a “rural backwater”—or a “RURAL BACKWATER,” as rendered in Ellmann’s caps-happy prose— and charmed by the bungling GP, Dr. Lewis, who kills or injures most of his patients. A copy of Jane Eyre is Jen’s constant companion; just like Jane, Jen will save her swain from a mysterious fire and discover at an inopportune moment that her husband-to-be is another creature’s groom, when “a dark, wet, hairy, slimy purplish thing like a walking vulva made her way up the aisle, grovelling, bleeding, drooling, stinking, swelling. What base cunt was this?”

This return of the repressed is oddly complementary to Jen’s fixation on bodily shame and negation of the glory hole; she embraces nudism and obsesses over the vaginal properties of hand-bags. (The book’s epigraph notes that nothing was slang for vagina in Shakespeare’s era, which adds another dimension not only to Much Ado About Nothing but Cordelia’s pivotal “Nothing” in King Lear.) Venting and haranguing on Jen’s behalf, Doctors & Nurses works up an impressive froth of surreal indignation that bubbles over into satirical screed, as when Mrs. Lewis’s mental bedlam is attributed to botched Botox. It’s no news flash that beauty myths can warp the mind, but all the same, Doctors & Nurses is impeccably unpretty.