Lucy Ellmann’s seventh novel “Ducks, Newburyport” was rejected by Bloomsbury, which published the previous six. It’s not hard to see why: the novel is nearly a thousand pages, and most of that length is taken up by one continuous sentence narrating the internal monologue of a Midwestern American homemaker, something like the “Penelope” section in “Ulysses” extended to the length of the whole book. The sentence’s units of construction are lists of alliterative or conceptually related words (“bento box, incense sticks, joss sticks, josser, equestrian acts, Patricia Highsmith,”) and statements, questions and speculations prefaced with the plaintive, grammatically-questionable phrase “the fact that.” It’s a texture that lends itself to a rumination/free-association/referential chaos narrative made entirely of loose ends.
The novel has gotten a lot of critical attention since its release. Justifiably so — it’s a wildly ambitious and totally unique masterpiece of the kind that doesn’t frequently appear in contemporary fiction. This also means the novel stands out in the current literary landscape like an octopus on a sidewalk, a standing challenge to a literary culture that tends to produce quiet novels in the nineteenth-century mold. Formal experimentation suddenly seems like the appropriate way to depict a character who might just be a passing presence in another novel — Ellmann doesn’t highlight a marginalized voice, she makes that voice the general case, makes it stand in for the anxiety of the moment. I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s argument in “The Great Derangement” about literature ignoring climate change and societal catastrophe. Ellmann doesn’t just bring these themes to the forefront, she makes them scream.
The book’s standing rebuke also makes the conventional book review look a little ridiculous. The general structure that reviews of “Ducks” tend to are comments on the length, calling it immersive or dazzling or important or worth it, or saying something about consciousness or subjectivity. Book reviews can at times resemble publisher’s lists: they never really do the work justice, they tell you what you already know about the book, they are vapid and sterile and hardly useful. This laughable piece on “Ducks” in the Chicago Tribune that is mostly a yuppie-scented meditation on not reading long books (“It’s not that I’m quick to give up if a book doesn’t immediately invite me in, but I find that I’m less eager to test my mettle.”) is just the worst example of a genre that is defined, in part, by its cursoriness. This is true for any even remotely complex work of fiction, but it’s doubly true for anything ambitious or unconventional. For my part, I’m not really interested in writing another “review.” I’m responding to Ellmann’s provocation with a list of my own — of ways into the book, ways that one could try to get around this unusual work of immense force.
Ellmann’s father is a notable Joyce scholar, something she seems to have distanced herself from. In an interview with the Washington Post, she says she “tuned out” all the Joyce talk her father would bring home “when my mother didn’t put her foot down.” One thing that sets “Ducks” apart from Joyce is all the commas. “Penelope” uses very little punctuation and seems to rely on a consistent sense of grammatical ambiguity that gives the thoughts a flickering quality. “Ducks” moves the unit of the stream from the clause or phrase to the thought or statement, thoughts that are usually fairly bounded. Ellmann’s protagonist even stops to correct herself when she creates ambiguity — a frequent move is to make a statement where a pronoun could refer to more than one person, whereafter the protagonist stops to clarify.
There’s a turbulent quality to the book, a sense that the protagonist never stops trying to grasp hold of something solid. The constant references to books, films and other fragments of culture are footholds of sorts, the smallest unit of meaning in a world saturated with objects. The book’s stream of consciousness, then, is less of an unbroken flow of thought and more a kind of thought that gets caught up in everything, like a river flowing over rocks.
More than one review has mentioned that “Ducks”’s aim is to create a more visceral, immediate representation of thought. It does do this very well. After reading the novel for a while, I noticed that I would emerge from an hour or two of it suddenly dazed at my surroundings. The narrator’s thoughts tend to take over those of the reader. Ellmann has reproduced the messy details of a wandering mind with surprising verisimilitude. Thoughts recur with no specific reason to, earworms float in and out of the frame, anecdotes get unpredictably broken down and used as jumping-off points for new ideas and threads. “Ducks” reminds me that the mind is a prismatic, unpredictable space.
However, it’s probably more accurate to say that Ellmann has less reproduced thought than created something that takes the outline of thought as a literary model. Thought is a genre for Ellmann, a genre that she intends on turning inside out. In my own experience, I find that my unoccupied mind usually doesn’t have the oceanic scope that Ellmann’s protagonist has. I am incapable of going, on my own volition, from Jane Austen directly to space debris; I need a reminder or a jolt of some kind from the outside world. I feel similarly about the alliterative lists that work as a sort of connective tissue — they feel more like verbal acrobatics than anything that would spontaneously occur to someone. Maybe I simply have less of an active mind than Ellmann does, or maybe it’s a testament to her skill as a writer that she doesn’t limit herself to how banal the experience of thinking actually is. She shows us what thinking could be, if the usual margins of one’s mind were done away with.
There’s another possibility, though. Maybe “Ducks” isn’t necessarily a representation of thought in a literal sense but a representation of feeling in the media-saturated 21st century. More than one review has made mention of the push notification-like snippets, sometimes in all caps, that pepper the book with emphatic language nearly shorn of meaning. “PERSONS CAUGHT CRAWLING UNDER THE DOOR.” “25% OFF THIS WEEK ONLY.” “I AM NUBILE.” “PERSONS CAUGHT CRAWLING.”
Maybe the kind of thinking that the author does — spiraling, caught up in references, looking for some way to think about her own life and the future of her society — is an affective state necessarily arising from context-less news saturation, as well as the state of conjoined political turmoil and social stasis. Life goes on eerily quietly in the Ohio of the protagonist, even as the world outside seems to be in the throes of change and on the brink of disaster. Sometimes I finish reading something new and dire about climate change and just look around me, say on State Street, watching people working, walking around outside, going to and from jobs, reading. Experience becomes a world of pure information next to everyday banality. It’s difficult to know what to do, or what to think, about any of this. The placidity of my life, the supposed chaos elsewhere … this can’t be all of the story, right?
“Ducks” is prefaced, after the epigraphs, with a sentence printed in the middle of a mercifully blank page. “Proviso: this is a work of pure supposition.” This statement rings true to me after reading most of the book. Supposition is what “Ducks” has in place of narrative: the protagonist’s thoughts have this half-formed, almost superficial quality to them, like they’re always meant to be provisional. They are not conclusions about the world but small, almost impressionistic observations. When speculating about the feelings of a pet guinea pig named Tiny Tim: “I mean if you have to be a caged rodent, maybe it’s better to be a caged rodent among other caged rodents.” There is a lot of speculation about the feelings of other people, most of it inconclusive. Most of the author’s thoughts do not ground her, and she frequently ends up more confused than when she started.
Some very long novels get the designation “encyclopedic” when they seem to sum everything up about the way a certain age or a certain culture thinks about itself and the world and make that suddenly legible as a text. This novel, in its frequent proliferations of nameable things, literally resembles an encyclopedia, just one not organized by anything but the mind. The narrator's thought is either in vague generalizations or in language that is all too exact. “I don’t like remembering things,” she thinks at one point, even though the novel is filled with little else. She frequently says how bad her own memory is, even though she is a fount of popular culture from the last 50 years. Her memory is all out of order, never quite working to sort things out. She has access to nearly everything, but it doesn’t congeal. It remains factual and, thus, incomplete. The novel abolishes the distinction between meaningless data and a meaningful composite.
It’s hard to pin down what voice consists of, but its presence is always felt. Being midwestern, I can tell that Ellmann nails the archetype, which she refers to as “a brand of politeness I associate with certain American women I have known (some of them from Ohio).” There are certain moments I could isolate to show this (“the fact that it’s a pretty silly suggestion since who’re you cheating except yourself, …which is kind of, you know, your right), but it’s more of a gut feeling.
More broadly, though, the novel is built out of style, which is to say voice, as opposed to description or dialogue. The narrator’s occasionally idiosyncratic way of saying things is all the reader has to go on: there’s no description to counterbalance her statements, which are made with occasional emphaticness but always within Ellmann’s “brand of politeness.” Her character is also constructed mostly through the way she says things rather than wha’s being said. The stakes are high, and it’s stunning that Ellmann never seems to waver in her mastery of American style, given that she has lived in the UK since she was 13.
Once or twice while reading a novel, you might encounter an image in passing that suddenly knocks you out of the book and into a dreamy state, a little detail that jumps out at you and consumes your attention for a moment. This happens so often in “Ducks” that reading the book can be like a collection of immediately interesting objects, like that specific kind of American home so stuffed with objects that every moment is one of discovery. The material culture of American life is splayed across these pages. One detail that jumped out at me with sudden recognition was the random mention of “dinosaur-shaped ice cube trays.” I suddenly could imagine an entire house around that ice cube tray.
There are more significant objects that appear now and again. Family heirlooms, old paintings, books with loved ones’ handwriting in them, objects that memory and meaning inhere in. These are all jumbled up with the layers of material culture that fill the book. At one point, a treasured painting is crushed under an old wagon wheel in the attic.
One of the epigraphs of “Ducks” is from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It reads: “I represent a field you are passing between Grover’s Corners, Ohio and Parkersburg, Ohio. In this field there are 51 gophers, 206 field mice, 6 snakes and millions of bugs, insects, ants, and spiders. All in their winter sleep.”
While I have been reading “Ducks,” I have been thinking on and off about how nature organizes itself. I read a good deal of the book outside. Nature is full of order and symmetry, but it’s never realized perfectly — a beautiful plant has to grow around the incursions of other plants. Nature is a system of compromises, a messy composite. I’m reminded, if in a distorted, hazy way, of Emerson’s writings on nature: he saw it as a “picture-language” for human thought, something that could be interpreted to find the truth of human nature. Is it possible that Ellmann’s thickets of thought show how human thought is similar to the proliferations of nature? Associations, suppositions, guesses and statistics all scamper through thickets of memory both personal and cultural, then disappear from view only to unexpectedly reappear right when you least expect them to.
But this is still, ultimately, a novel we are talking about here — and the book turns out to be about a lot of the same things that novels are otherwise about, because novels are about humans, and humans, while infinitely varied, have some things in common. The novel is not really “about” anything, but there are ruminations on motherhood, death, life, work, love and family that tie the book together, even if nothing ever really resolves per se. Resolution, tidy or otherwise, is not to be found, but there are moments of relief in the love between the protagonist and her husband Leo, her memories of her parents and friends; there are also depths of grief and fear in her musings on her mother’s death and her worries for her children. The novel’s narrative method depicts someone’s life through a pileup of anecdotes, unprocessed experience. This is what all of our lives are first, before but not exclusive of narration.