Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, Galley Beggar Press, 1,030 pp, £14, ISBN: 978-1910296967
Approaching half a million words, Ducks, Newburyport is the size of four average full-length novels. The central one-sentence structure by the first-person narrator, blending shorthand techniques of fugal repetition (“the fact that” introducing each new thought fragment), word association lists, statistics (“forty-seven kids are shot every day, forty injured and seven killed … forty-seven moms too who have to deal with that …”), acronyms, extensive notes on abbreviations, and the whole kitchen sink, virtually, initially grated so much that it made me wonder what writer could get away with submitting a work that seemed in certain respects to be still at the messy draft stage? “Info porn”, in her own words, surely; the tremors of an open brain swinging between monkey mind and hyper-attuned introspection? At the same time, what writer could diverge from a few slow plot threads to create so many variations on themes of self-doubt, grief, concern for loved ones and terror about modern violence while delivering perceptive articulate cultural analysis and wonderful witty, often poetic, word play? Were these kaleidoscopic cognitive riffs pre-designed after all?
Twenty (of one thousand plus) pages in, I got hooked, and began to understand the Booker Prize nomination. Independent UK publisher Galley Beggar Press, who carried Eimear McBride’s 2013 award-winning A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, has excelled in the production of this maverick volume.
The unnamed female storyteller, busy Ohio baker and seller of cherry pies, sustains a sparkling interior monologue on topics ranging from admiration of the Amish lifestyle to horror about countless carcinogens in air and water, and about American African and native genocides, rage at gun crime, and at the cruel slaughter of factory-farmed chickens and big game, pain from missing her deceased parents and worrying about her beloved husband and four children, being overwhelmed by school runs, catering, and the patient-medical interface, probing politicians’ flaws, and black-and-white film plotlines, and much else besides.
This spiel is preceded by a conventional page of text about a wild lioness who is euphoric after bearing kittens, on whose progress the reader is subsequently sparingly updated. In captivity the lioness observes: “People had no playfulness. They were clumsy, methodical, repetitive creatures, graceless and brutal – and full of exasperating unconcern.” One thing Ellmann’s writing does not lack is playfulness.
The New Yorker review cites a 1976 essay by critic Edward Mendelson on “the encyclopedic narrative” entailing the presentation of a national culture’s entire panoply of knowledge and beliefs, at which Ellmann does seem to aim in her seventh novel. Speaking to inews.co.uk, she defended Rorschach-like list-making as corresponding to literary tradition as represented by writers like Rabelais and Sterne. Stream of consciousness expression is reminiscent of Kerouac’s On The Road, and of Mrs Dalloway, written by Virginia Woolf soon after reading Joyce’s Ulysses. Intrusion of real-world atrocities into the script recalls Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I also detect echoes of Chris Kraus’s lonely girl phenomenology, as confided in her interdisciplinary novel I Love Dick, and of Anna Burns’s surreal and claustrophobic clash of normalities in Milkman. The latter shares the emergence of a sinister aggressor hidden in plain sight with Ducks, Newburyport, as well as a type of absurdist comedy displayed in Ellmann’s accounts of her experiences of taking cold pills and attending her dental hygienist.
These authors put a lot of themselves, including certain traumas and resultant stresses, in their fictional creations, and I was curious about the degree to which Ducks, Newburyport is similarly autobiographical. At one point, the narrator recollects Declan Kiberd remarking during a talk at Notre Dame that the Irish fetishise the past. Elsewhere she describes Ireland as totally familiar to her. Given that the author’s father, much-lauded scholar Richard Ellman, composed several celebrated biographies of Irish writers Yeats, Wilde, and Joyce, which he researched while living in Dublin and earning a degree from Trinity College in 1947, this influence rubbing off on his daughter is hardly surprising. Edna O’ Brien counted him as a friend. The narrator’s dead father is also an aloof if likeable academic.
Born in the USA, and relocating to England as a child, Lucy Ellmann now lives in Scotland with her writer husband Todd McEwan. Her sister Maud, a professor specialising in the literary novel, has published on Joyce and analysed Elizabeth Bowen through the lens of Irish and feminist studies. Their brother Stephen, attorney, law lecturer and social justice advocate, died last March. Pondering billionaires, the narrator likewise craves socio-economic fairness: “what does anybody need that much money fo r… there’s a limit to how many gourmet meals a person can eat … if everybody just had a basic living wage, we’d all be happy, and the whole history of ruin and worry would be over …” Pondering active shooters in malls and the like, she says “It’s getting harder to say you don’t believe it though, when it’s in the news practically every day, some shooting or other …” She longs to see her scattered siblings again. But it is Mary Ellman, the author’s mother, who most intrigues me, considering her daughter’s latest book.
The narrator poignantly sympathises in hindsight with her mother’s persistence in compiling a book while teaching and minding young children. Lucy’s actual mother, Mary Ellmann, a respected freelance book reviewer, did indeed complete one book, published by Harcourt, Brace and World in 1968, when Lucy was twelve. Thinking About Women is now recognised as a pioneering compendium of feminist literary criticism that helped to legitimise serious discussion of women writers. Likewise, Ducks, Newburyport insists on representing everywoman’s point of view. If some compare it to Ulysses, the prism through which it views the world is less rose-tinted: “sex used to be important, and meaningful, and yes, loving, and now it’s all just rape and some sort of crash course, Sex 101, like birdwatching …”
Mary Ellmann’s recorded maiden name, Donoghue, is unmistakably Irish. She was born in 1921, in a Massachusetts town called none other than Newburyport. While establishing factual parallels for other details is more challenging, this overlap indicates that memoir is significantly at play in Ducks, Newburyport, an assumption perhaps supported by the tremendous emotional ripples of this thought-provoking entertaining novel.
As the narrator frequently states, the wound that really broke her was inflicted the day she witnessed the frightful clinical transformation of her mother at the onset of an eventually fatal illness. She doubts “Anthony Trollope ever knew what a great mom he had”, admitting she “never read any of his novels” since “there seem to be too many of them”. While granting how hard kids have it now, she argues, “what if it’s the other way round, and it’s us moms that are traumatised, shell-shocked, damaged, starved, downtrodden, by everything we gotta do, this huge thankless task … most of us are in terrible shape …” Above all, when anxious, this middle-aged mother misses her own mom and, through a smorgasbord of scenarios, bemoans “a generation lost in space, with no time left to start again”, as Don McLean put it in American Pie. Modern society militates against families spending quality time together to nurture and enjoy, and that is one of the things that is killing us.
The narrator fears for her sulky teenage daughter, Stacey, pressurised by social media shows like Morning Routine and by peer fashions to wear enough make-up to go with the right but crippling heels and accessories every time she appears in public. Stacey surprises everyone later by revealing her mettle in crisis. Reflecting on the extreme pornography in circulation, the narrator doesn’t know how boys can even look girls in the eye anymore. “Chivalry is dead, same goes for gallantry, and stoicism and loyalty and decency and civility and compassion and all that sort of old-fashioned stuff … all gone out the window.” She reckons youths would be better off doing anything else other than spending “all day incinerating aliens at the touch of a button” in video games.
Ellmann is bracing cerebral company, but it’s women’s lives that top her agenda. In a Guardian interview, she chose Valerie Solanus’s 1967 radical feminist SCUM Manifesto as the book that most changed her life, and the one she wished she’d written. It is also contemporaneous with her mother’s book, which corrected sex biases embedded in cultural criticisms of classic literature by writers like Jane Austen, who tellingly figures largely in Ducks, Newburyport.
For championing aboriginal peoples, oppressed minorities, mothers and children, abused animals and other put-upon sentient beings, perhaps the following quote best captures the underlying message Ellmann wants to convey: “every single thing has its own centre of being, and looks out on the world from that point of view, even a worm, or a jellyfish, hamsters, owls … even a leaf has feeling … enjoying this warm sun going right through them.”
Ducks, Newburyport is an ingenious heartfelt plea for sane peaceful inclusive citizenship.
Caroline Hurley lives near an Irish bird reserve where contact with nature inspires ideas, and occasionally poems. Some have appeared in Poetry 24, anthologies, and elsewhere.