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Elizabeth Ellen

Elizabeth Ellen is the author of the novel Person/a, the story collections Saul Stories and Fast Machine, and the poetry collections Elizabeth Ellen and Bridget Fonda. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, is a deputy editor at Hobart, and lives in Ann Arbor.


"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."

– Juliet Escoria, The Fanzine

“Your novel was encouraging to me. Because I’m writing another autobiographical novel also, and I keep feeling pressure in my mind from various vague sources, and just a general feeling, to not write what I most want to write, which is something that goes deeper into autobiographical writing, exploring it even more than I have before. Your novel seemed very brave and extreme and exciting to me, the amount of freedom you were exhibiting.”

– Tao Lin

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Person/a by Elizabeth Ellen


Person/a is a positively dizzying book. At first it seems similar to the gritty, gut-punch emotionally raw stories of Elizabeth Ellen’s earlier collection, Fast Machine:

The second time I drove to see him without telling him I did not tell anyone I was going. I was bored of talking about him with my friends and was embarrassed that I had not managed to overcome my feelings for him. Several of my friends had mentioned the word “therapy” which I thought of in a similar vein and with similar seriousness as the words “murder” and “online dating service.” I.e., I couldn’t take any of them seriously, though of the three, “murder” felt the least offensive and also the most likely to succeed.

Without bringing in a different prose style though, things quickly become significantly more amazingly complex and layered.

Person/a centers on a fictionalized Ellen’s intense obsession/relationship with another writer, or a musician (same man, I’ll explain more below). For the most part, this man keeps her at a distance. There are only a limited number of interactions in person; the majority of their relationship takes place over text or email, with even few actual voice phone calls. In fact, the majority of their relationship involves him supposedly trying to prevent a relationship at the same time that he pulls her back toward him and she attempts to get him to do so.

The complexity comes in about the time we hit the second volume one. Supposedly structured in four volumes, there are in fact multiple volume ones. Ellen tells it one way, and then re-approaches the same thing in a different way (while still managing to advance the story).

For example, the man is an unnamed writer in the first volume one, but a musician named Ian in the second. Breaking up with her previous lover before Ian becomes going back and forth with him repeatedly, in love with both the previous lover and Ian in different ways. Jamaica becomes Mexico. A daughter becomes a son, and then oscillates repeatedly between genders. The changeable details end up altering seemingly at will.

In one volume one we have:.

The first time I drove to see him without telling him was two days after I got back from Jamaica. I think of our relationship now in terms of before Jamaica and after. I was gone six days. I often wonder if I hadn’t gone to Jamaica if things would have turned out differently. I think it’s a fair thing to wonder.

In another:

The first time I drove to see Ian without telling him was two days after I got back from Mexico. I think of our relationship now in terms of before Mexico and after. It is the cruelest way to think.

The differences are small, but significant. These differences change the overall impression of what is going on. There are many passages like this. Some are thematic repetition; some are the reality of the novel shifting under the reader’s, and Ellen’s, feet as the main thread stays unchanged and progresses.

Ellen, mixing autobiographical information with fiction as she does, is deciding and re-deciding how to cast it all, what details to include and what to hide or reveal. She’s seeing how it affects the whole, and her. After all, she’s writing herself as a character defined by this obsession. Does she not define the persona and live in it as much through the writing as through the obsession itself? Combining instead of cutting, she’s layering multiple meanings into the novel while the main thread of meaning running throughout does not change.

At the same time that Person/a seems chaotic and uncontrolled, it’s clear Ellen (the author, to whatever extent there is a difference) is completely in control. This is a wonderfully sophisticated structure for such straightforward prose that leaves the reader as bewildered and emotionally flayed as Ellen (the character, again to whatever extent there is a difference). Gratifying as Person/a is on a sentence-by-sentence level, the book is something that really needs to be experienced as a whole in order to really experience what it manages to accomplish. At the end, I’m more stunned than able to decide or articulate what I really feel about Person/a, and that’s marvelous.

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