Thrift, Drift, Grip, Glint, Live
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport
This review is a year behind schedule. When I first read Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport in June 2019, a few weeks before it was published, I believed I’d find much to say and I fully intended to write about it. Just look at its literary bona fides: it takes the form of an internal monologue that runs over a thousand pages, more or less in a single sentence. If nothing else, I thought, its stylistic audacity and its maximalist scale warranted careful consideration. But then, when I came to the end of the book, I set it aside and said nothing. I couldn’t find my way to a beginning. I don’t mean to say that I found the novel wanting or not worth the trouble, nor that I found it a masterpiece for which I lacked the superlatives. I mean only that I couldn’t see the terms on which best to evaluate it. I found it adventurous and accomplished, and frustrating and tedious, but also something else, something more unusual for a novel: I felt somehow held at arm’s length by it, deliberately so, owing to an inscrutable design that drew me back to it after I’d put it down. So I’ve had it sitting here with me these last twelve months, its pages thumbed through for a few minutes most days, and now, after a year’s reflection, I feel better placed to address it. I still don’t think I can review it, per se, but I’m of a mind to give an account of having dwelt with it all this time. In fact, I think, the reason it has stuck with me so long is precisely that it doesn’t seem to call for anything from its readers. By way of its insistent ongoingness, its relentlessness, and its overwhelmingness, it seems to care not a whit for whatever anyone might say about it.
In retrospect, of course, it’s clear that Ducks didn’t need the slightest good word from the likes of me. Accumulating extraordinary pre-publication buzz, racking up glowing reviews in the press, landing a spot on the Booker Prize shortlist, and claiming victory in the Goldsmiths Prize for fiction that “extends the possibilities of the novel form”, it has gone from strength to strength and looks like a sure bet for a future classic. Now here we are, a year down the line. The noise has dimmed, the excitement has faded. Yet the novel itself remains unchanged. It sits beside me still, exactly as it did before it began its rise to literary stardom. What to make of things in this quieter atmosphere? Might it be possible, at last, to cut through the adulation, to more honestly appraise the novel’s artistry, to better discern its aims? These were the questions I carried with me when I began re-reading Ducks this spring. Still, as above, having recently closed the covers again, I can’t say I’ve found any answers to them. On the contrary, I’ve only found myself returned to my original stance towards the novel — a place from which, at best, I’m able to regard the experience of reading Ducks, but unable to convey it. I don’t have a take on Ducks, nor a gathering of material with which to praise or disparage it. All I have is the lingering sensation of having spent a lot of time in the novel’s timeflow — which is, I sometimes suspect, as much as the novel aims to offer.
Why so? Because Ducks, Newburyport is utterly indifferent to the presence of its readers. Not dismissive of them, just indifferent. If it provokes thoughts and feelings, it certainly doesn’t campaign for them, and that’s why I feel I can’t articulate a “response” to the book. I couldn’t do it any more than I could rate the Rock of Gibraltar on TripAdvisor: it exists for and unto itself. Assured and imperturbable, this novel simply is. Ellmann’s aims are not for me to guess at; but when a book goes on and on as Ducks goes on and on, and makes space for so many stylistic indulgences which could easily be cut if concision and narrative efficiency were priorities, it’s safe to say that readers are on some level required to submit to it, and that excess and gratuitousness are part of its aesthetic program. So, despite the political vitality and stylistic quirks of Ducks, its design seems to contain no element of conventional appeal, no implicit promise of suspense and gratification, no attempt to elicit its readers’ trust in the eventual fulfilment of desires. Rather, if anything, the novel seems designed for the total immersion of the reader’s consciousness in the consciousness of another person — and even then not to facilitate an exchange of sympathies, but for the sheer state of immersion to serve as an end-in-itself. This end is one that Ducks achieves without seeking to convince the reader to yield to its means. It opts instead for the immediate route of merely tarrying with the narrator, gratuitously, and at gratuitous length, as her consciousness registers, dismisses, and subordinates to other affairs her awareness of her own immersion in the currents of swiftly passing time.
That might sound complex, but the situation is simple enough. Ducks, Newburyport is narrated by an unnamed middle-aged mother of four living in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Her husband, Leo, is a civil engineer, often busy with work that keeps him from home. His absence leaves the narrator responsible for running their household and taking care of their children, one of whom is hers alone from a previous marriage. She does the domestic chores, although she feels ashamed by them, and she helps to make ends meet by running a small business from her kitchen, baking pies for sale to local clients. Her modus operandi is thrift. Her ethic is make do and mend. Her days look something like this: “catering to [the kids’] needs and demands, cleaning toilets, filling lunchboxes, labelling all their personal property, shampooing and brushing hair, discussing everything, searching for lost stuff”, then “shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling, frilling, fooling, cooling, heating, boiling, broiling, frying”. Unsurprisingly, her thoughts are plagued by troubles; her apparent functionality belies a torturous discomposure. She is depressed by the onset of middle age, the loss of old friends, the dissatisfactions of her life as an intelligent, socially conscious woman diminished by a series of misfortunes. She continues to grieve for her mother, whose death some time ago has distorted her sense of self and warped her relationships with her siblings: “I haven’t felt loved since Mommy got sick”, she says early on, “Mommy’s illness wrecked my life… it broke me… I am broken”. Then, too, she remains traumatised by her own ordeal as a cancer survivor, particularly the indignity of her reliance on her husband’s healthcare benefits for the treatment that saved her life. She is overworked, overtaxed by trivialities, and not a little resentful of her lot, if also committed to recognising minor mercies and pleasures whenever they appear to her.
But the situation of Ducks, Newburyport is just that: a situation, nothing more. It isn’t a story. Despite the novel’s thousand pages, Ducks doesn’t prod its narrator to participate in a plot. It doesn’t even really push her into events of any great consequence. It finds her inconvenienced by various dilemmas — dealing with a flat tyre in a snowstorm, stuck in the mall with her children — but these incidents aren’t causally connected, nor do they garner much cumulative significance. Instead, they’re more like moments in which this or that occurrence becomes a focal mechanism, like a refractive lens, for the narrator’s otherwise hazy experience of being in time. The variations in that experience are felt through the narrator’s attending to the minutiae of these moments — their minute alterations and particularities — so that impossibly tiny changes in her state of being either occasion new thoughts or reinvigorate old ones. Her thoughts, thus occasioned, are presented almost as a stream of consciousness, not reported from a state of tranquillity, and just about the entirety of Ducks, Newburyport is an unfiltered record of what races through her mind.
It isn’t quite the case, though, that all of the narrator’s thoughts come to her spontaneously. Rather, they are circuitous, with many seeded by earlier considerations or external stimuli, so that, as her narration proceeds, she returns to certain subjects which disclose her preoccupations without avidly discoursing upon them. She is anxious about a tendency towards introversion that she fears has set her back in life: she sees herself as shy, forgetful, a little inept, a figure of mockery. She is fascinated by nineteenth century American history, peppering her monologue with digressions on the Civil War and Reconstruction, on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. She considers herself to be more worldly than the longtime residents of her adoptive neighbourhood of Newcomersville — unlike them, she spent part of her childhood living abroad — but for this very reason she also feels withdrawn from her surroundings, a pitiable recluse. She is a woman in Donald Trump’s America, but not at liberty to speak out or act out against the injustices faced by women in Donald Trump’s America. Most notably, she is distressed by the exploitation and degradation of the natural environment, and shaken by the prospect of civilisational collapse. Trump and his cronies are name-checked as threats to the social order, and no shortage of the narrator’s thoughts revolve around the effects of climate change, factory farming, the irradiation of soil, atmospheric nanoparticles, and the flagrant public health violations of corporate entities like DuPont.
From this network of issues, from these variegated concerns, from the narrator’s recursive movements amidst a scattering of points, a distinct sensibility emerges. How to describe it? Fraught, frantic, mournful, sometimes paranoid, but also generous and informed and determinedly appreciative of daily blessings: think Molly Bloom meets Mary Beard and Mary Oliver. Some readers, I know, have been won over by the narrator’s impassioned disgust at the actions of the Trump administration, celebrating Ducks for giving voice to the thoughts of many millions around the world. It may well do that, and it certainly does voice my own thoughts, but in this respect it rather sounds like it’s preaching to the choir. After all, there’s nothing new or incisive about the narrator’s political critique, which isn’t even a critique so much as a litany of distresses, and it’s difficult to imagine one of Trump’s die-hard culture warriors turning a sympathetic ear to the narrator’s voice. For me, then, the narrator’s political woes are less interesting for their substance than for their role in creating a mood that gives shade and depth to her more individualised problems, and in turn colours her sensibility. In fact, what I find especially impressive about Ducks is the way this sensibility shines through the gaps between the narrator’s favoured subjects, more so than it arises from the subjects themselves. It seeps out from those places where certain subjects sit flush on the page but don’t connect conceptually. It gathers in those expanses where otherwise congruent subjects are held apart by digressions on other topics, as the narrator’s attention shuttles back and forth between them and then drifts away and at last circles around again to reconsider unresolved matters.
Part of the reason the narrator drifts so far off-course so frequently, or otherwise conjoins two unrelated subjects, is that the novel’s prose style makes distraction so easy. Famously, in lieu of conventional sentences, Ducks, Newburyport replaces full stops with comma splices and employs a narratorial tic to transition between sentences: the repetition of the words “the fact that”. The phrase holds almost no meaning in itself, functioning more like “um” or “ah” as a means of holding off silence while the narrator prevaricates and draws breath before moving on: “the fact that there’s a lot of circus stuff in Far from the Madding Crowd, too much actually, the fact that that was why I named Bathsheba ‘Bathsheba,’ because that’s what I was reading at the time, the fact that I don’t know if we ever pronounced it right, the fact that we always called her Bathsheeeba, but maybe it’s Bathshubba, the fact that she liked the strong E sound, the fact that the French try not to emphasize any syllable…” You could strip out every instance of “the fact that”, replace it with a full stop, capitalise the next letter, rewrite the entire novel with greater adherence to stylistic conventions, and you wouldn’t lose the meaning of the narrative — but you’d absolutely lose the narrator’s sensibility, along with her tone and her pace of thought, and those losses would make the experience of Ducks far less immersive than it is.
The most deeply immersive moments in Ducks, however, are those in which the narrator’s thoughts gather such speed that she herself forfeits “the fact that” and rushes through a list of subjects without pausing to connect them. The rush forces the reader to descry the logic by which she moves from one subject to the next, and taking up this task encourages greater affinity with — with what, exactly? Not with the stuff of the narrator’s consciousness, but with something more like its pulse: its rhythms, its tempo, its constitution in the sense of its coming-into-being over time and through language; its oscillations between excitation and reflection, the ratio of the one to the other, the regularity of the intervals between those two extremes.
One means of transition between subjects is simple prosody: the narrator finds her thoughts drawn to words she either likes or doesn’t like, and these remind her of other words connected to events that trigger new thoughts. In an early case of prosodic transition, she lingers over the ugliness of the word “extrude” in the phrase “extruded polymer solutions”, then she ponders other words she hates: “something starting with F maybe, fortitude, or no, a verb, fumigate, something long, not fornicate, surely, my my, no, it’s more like fructify, or refurbishment, fluctuate, fluctuation, furbelow, fermentation, fulminating, that sort of word, oh I don’t know anymore, the fact that actually I think it might be pulchritudinous…” This pondering leads the narrator to consider the associations of “intrude”, which in turn lead her back to “extrude” and its prosodic kin and then to Shakespeare: “the fact that I don’t like ‘exuberant,’ or ‘exude’ either, the fact that they’re almost as bad as ‘extrude,’ excruciating… exude, extrude, exeunt, exit, pursued by a bear…” And this loop — from “extrude” to “exit, pursued” — is itself interlinked with another rush of words, some of which pick up the “/i/” sound of “excruciating” and “pulchritudinous” and yet point to unrelated subjects: “vestibule, sundogs, dogwhistles, whistleblowers, gesticulate, reticule, vestibule, residue, fibula, investiture…” And this rush is followed, too, by another that pairs “/i/” with “/z/”: “the fact that we’re about due for another blizzard ourselves, gizzard, wizard, buzzard, zigzag, ziggurat, mosque, piecemeal, peacetime, four-foot sword…” So the stream of consciousness flows on. And if, as above, it is indeed a “task” for the reader to discern the logic of the narrator’s transition from subject to subject, these outbursts of linguistic musicality make that task equal parts Herculean and joyful.
But there’s more. Sometimes the narrator’s prosodic transitions set up expectations of subjects to be dealt with in future. When thoughts of “shabby chic” décor lead to “Marie Kondo, taekwondo, working mom”, surely placing “Marie Kondo” in such proximity to “working mom” means that Amy Chua can’t be far behind? Chua lives in the narrator’s true hometown of New Haven, after all, and her parenting prescriptions would make the narrator blush every bit as much as Kondo’s advice on housekeeping. As it turns out, Chua doesn’t score a mention in Ducks, Newburyport, but “tiger mom” does, and this is just one of dozens of incidents where the narrator’s logorrhoea tends towards unaddressed subjects in a way that generates a strange suspense of semantics. Will she or won’t she make something of this or that opportunity for associative thought? Is her cultural awareness capacious enough to encompass something as yet unmentioned, or is she compelled to speak to more pressing concerns? Her associative reflexes are involuntary, or affected to appear so — she can’t stop her thoughts from going where they will, especially after reading clickbait or catching a few bars of an earworm — and when these involuntary gushes break against her self-awareness, her sensibility shines ever brighter.
Here’s one example of how that works. The narrator has a habit of using childish euphemisms for body parts she’s too embarrassed to name: “me-oh-my” and, quite frequently, “sit-me-down-upon”. But this habit isn’t strong enough to keep her thoughts from drifting into digressions on oral sex, anal sex, sexual mores, and varieties of sex positions, all of which shame her when she snaps out of her reverie: “oh dear, the fact that what is the matter with me, the fact that let’s not go there”. There’s a sly sort of delight to her recurrent efforts to subdue her most base tendencies: she wants to be prim and proper, mature and composed, respectable, but inside herself she entertains a playful perversity, and she becomes prudish about her own predilections when, from time to time, the imp escapes its cage. The movement of her thoughts, here, is practically a dramatisation of the imperative to “get a grip” on oneself — though, again, the immersive quality of her sensibility comes from the way she tries to get a grip, from prose that traces the fluctuations of her will, not from the fact of her trying or the consequences of her failures.
Get a grip on yourself. The phrase, the injunction to consciously repress one’s reflexive excesses, also encapsulates the narrator’s broader struggles. Her apocalypticism makes her hyperaware of the pressing dangers of climate change, but financial hardship and family dynamics jointly prey upon her awareness of the liberties she takes when it comes to climate action. She doesn’t have many opportunities for the recovery of her independence after surviving cancer, nor for economic gains. On this basis she insists she needs a car to keep her business alive, to deliver pies, and she claims she can’t afford the time it takes to run an eco-friendly washing machine in a six-person household. Yet her daughter Stacy begrudges anyone’s use of these conveniences, calling for strict adherence to an ethical code that prioritises minimising the family’s environmental impact. Intellectually, the narrator shares Stacy’s concerns, but physically — beleaguered by chronic exhaustion that is inflamed by her unflagging haste — she feels she suffers enough, and has suffered more than most, and so she allows herself secretly to cut corners. She can’t get a grip; she needs license to roam. She shouldn’t have to get a grip; she has paid her dues with her setbacks and losses, her daily humiliations, her prolonged incapacity. But, then again, what does she have to complain about? She has a house, a family, love. She has her health. She is politically and socially engaged, and all too aware of all the masses of people outside her sphere of influence who can’t even keep their heads above water. In Ohio alone, she knows, there are countless cancer patients whose reliance on Obamacare in the age of Trump might well leave them to suffer the death she managed to evade. In the wake of her self-directed lamentations, then, the narrator reliably doubles back, reminds herself of her relative good fortune, and laments instead the woes of others. As she battles, line by line, to keep her more juvenile impulses in check, she also strives, on a broader scale, both to justly acknowledge her good fortune and to clearly assess her lack of it.
With all that being said, readers who haven’t yet opened Ducks might find themselves needled by a simple question: why should I care about any of this? That’s a reasonable thing to ask. The narrator of Ducks is an interesting person, a person who has faced and continues to face interesting daily challenges, but on balance she’s no more or less remarkable than millions of others, each one potentially an alternative narrator. She certainly doesn’t seem to be worthy of such special regard that readers would be wise to invest untold hours in ploughing through a thousand pages of her thoughts. And without employing any of the customary narrative apparatus to entice us into her world, Ducks doesn’t try to convince us that she does warrant singular sympathy, or even to lull us into suppressing our doubts and getting on with the job of reading. As a result, that question — why should I care? — is alive on every page of the novel, usually together with its more confronting corollary: how can I continue to care, when it feels to me as if I am not cared for? But Ducks doesn’t just ignore questions like these or leave them unanswered, dangling. Rather, it has its narrator grapple with them, albeit not in so many words, and try to come to terms with the possibility that life must be lived in the face of them and in the perpetual absence of any answers.
Ultimately, of course, it matters very little to anyone, and to the world at large, that an unnamed and unremarkable woman in Ohio should be consumed by certain concerns, tested by certain difficulties. But that’s exactly the point: the narrator, knowing this, is troubled anew by the twin devils of her felt insignificance as an individual and the general indifference of reality beyond her skull. Her voice is something like an inversion of the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable (1963) — not doubting the reality of the world as her words run on, but questioning the existential integrity of her own reality in a world that won’t credit it. While she isn’t generally a person given to philosophical introspection, her monologue thrums with the energy of the existential double-bind: how it is that a person, being moved to continue to live in this world, might then square up to the impersonality of the world in order to care about anything in it. If the narrator does stand out from the crowd in any significant way, it may be because she has a heightened awareness of the pain of committing to a life of inevitable losses, thanks to her experiences with cancer and her grief for her mother. In any case, when she wrestles with the details of how to conduct her daily activities, she seems to be facing off against formidably large questions in their quotidian guises. How is it possible, or even desirable, to create and sustain passionate connections to people and phenomena that are destined to disappear? How is it dignified to do so, when the enclosing universe is oblivious to the value that a person might place on these things, and itself values that person no higher than it values anything else?
Although the narrator of Ducks, Newburyport doesn’t pose these questions explicitly, the novel opens up to them by way of occasional fissures in the narrator’s monologue. Sometimes these fissures are incorporated into the monologue — the narrator is suddenly distracted, held rapt by something she espies — but at other times the monologue is halted, broken into, by a second narrative rendered in more conventional prose. This narrative follows the spiralling journey of a female mountain lion and her offspring across Appalachia and the Midwest, as they navigate a merciless world and suffer at the hands of inscrutable forces, including people. As well as encapsulating some of the narrator’s concerns about motherhood and humanity’s environmental crimes, the story of the mountain lion does eventually connect to the narrator’s situation near the end of the novel. More importantly, though, the presence of this second perspective allows Ducks to withdraw from the narrator’s monologue and counterbalance her anthropocentrism, and so to carve out within its own pages a narrative space that drains her worries of their immediacy. When we are with the mountain lion, travelling alongside her, sharing her concerns about territory and survival, the novel positions us to revalue the narrator’s passions from a dispassionate vantage point. What does the non-human world care for the cares of this woman, no matter how fiercely she may hold to them? What, then, is the worth of her holding to them at all?
When the narrator’s monologue, unspooling in its associative way, suddenly snags and spools back around an unexpected sight, these questions inflect Ducks, Newburyport even when the mountain lion isn’t in view. A telling moment occurs when the narrator briefly glories in the splendour of a glint of sunlight. Oftentimes, her worries about environmental degradation are followed by a suspicion that nature will someday exact revenge against humankind: she both checks in on the raptors kept under surveillance by the D.C. Eagle Cam and revels in the avian chaos of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Then she bears witness to that chance encounter with senseless, gratuitous beauty — “that sunlight coming in, the fact that the trees seem to be winking at me” — and, struck by this sight, the narrator muses on “the fact that it’s hard not to think everything’s right with the world when you see sunlight glinting through leaves, but it might not be true, of course, the fact that things could go wrong and the sun might still glint”. Indeed, sunlight will still glint through the leaves of the trees even if extinction is the fate of humankind. The sunlight derives its beauty, in part, from its obliviousness to its own effects, its indifference to observers. The narrator of Ducks periodically turns towards this mystifying indifference, as well as her own insignificance in the face of it, and rescues, from the flood of time, the occasional fixed moment of transcendence. But then, for readers, the presence of the mountain lion gives indifference an animate form throughout Ducks, Newburyport, so that, by the interlacing of the two narratives, the novel itself becomes an artefact of indifference — a generative force — and the labour of reading it involves confronting the very mysteries that arise from the narrator’s confrontation with the uncaring “out there”.
To pick up Ducks, and to persist with reading, is to reckon with your own reasons for doing so rather than doing otherwise. It is to challenge, and seek justification for, your willed decision to spend your time and expend your energies thus — to direct your finite capacity for care towards this thing, among all things. The novel stands in relation to its readers as the world stands in relation to its narrator, so readers, in turn, can finally only adopt a reciprocal stance. The book has surely provoked a wild variety of responses from many people, but my feeling is that it calls for no one response in particular: it goes on as it will, as the sun glints through the trees, as the mountain lion crosses the land — as our planet, wracked by poisons that will linger for millennia, arcs towards a recovery beyond the lifetime of our species. Or, at least, that’s how I find I now regard Ducks, Newburyport after a long delay in corralling my impressions. So what if this review is a year behind schedule? This regard for the novel, at a remove, is what a year’s meditation has purchased me. Without the clamour to proclaim that Ducks is or is not the quintessential novel of today’s world, a novel that speaks to the concerns of our time, there is quietude enough to see other energies at work in it. Thinking on it in the still hours, it seems to me that time itself is, if not the central subject of Ducks, at least the object of the experience it affords those who enter it: time as felt at human scale, with all its elasticity — constant in its flow, ephemeral in its lapsing, and depthless, overawing, in its capacity for immersion, for finding oneself in.