Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

“the fact that what is it with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff”

Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, is mostly written in the form of a single sentence, containing many commas, and running across almost one thousand pages. Add in the notes at the end, expansion of the acronyms scattered throughout the text, and it easily breaks this tally. It also weighs more than a kilogram – a Big book in every sense of the word.

I mention that it is mostly written as a single sentence. There is a story within about a mountain lion that runs in parallel. This is presented in a more conventional format and provided relief from the frantic intensity of the stream of information and opinion pouring from the narrator’s head. The two tales increasingly segue and enable a devastating denouement. The final line was breathtaking, and not just because the book was finally finished.

I recently read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession and it was like being enveloped in a welcome hug – it is quietly splendid. While Leonard and Hungry Paul is a story that makes me feel good about the world, Ducks, Newburyport is its opposite. Over the course of its thousand pages it lists many, many ways in which man is a scourge on our planet. I’m still not sure I can forgive the author for putting the picture into my head of the teenagers with a baby dolphin – just one horrific scene in a multifarious outpouring. By the end of the book I was believing the world would be a better place if we all followed the lead of several minor characters and removed ourselves. This tome is depressing.

Set in Ohio, America, the sentence is the internal monologue of a middle-aged wife and mother of four children. She bakes cinnamon rolls and pies in her home, supplying select eateries around her local town. She keeps hens in her backyard. She misses her dead parents, especially her mum. We learn of her history and current concerns between ephemera meandering around such subjects as: baking, films, actors, popular culture, books she has read to her children. She watches the news and bemoans the state of modern America – the atrocities enabled by American gun laws and the thoughtless self-entitlement of humans.

“the fact that nothing you do seems innocent anymore, the fact that even baking a pie has many ramifications”

The woman’s history does provide interest. She has lived in Europe as well as America. She has suffered serious health issues. The facts and feelings engendered by these nuggets sown within the digressive text need to be sieved from the stream of facts that are often inane: types of pie, the contents of cupboards, shopping lists. She details her dreams, her worries about her children and the type of mother she is.

“the fact that I’m only doing it to help my family, and yet to make any profit on these pies, I have to ignore my poor family half the time”

The reader is taken on trips to a shopping mall and a visit to the dentist but mostly the woman is in her kitchen, baking and watching news on TV. She is thinking about her shyness, looking back on all the incidents in her life she feels bad about, remembering her parents. She is considering the way Amish people live and how simple their lifestyle appears.

There is a great deal of repetition: polluted water supplies, bottled water, plastic pollution; how inspectors drive around gathering samples and thereby contribute to air pollution; cruelty to animals, factory farming, the billions of chickens raised in cages to sate man’s wasteful food preferences.

“the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out if you want to get through life”

The narrator is neurotic – well meaning but selfish. The narrative is all over the place and this appears to be deliberate – that thoughts will wander as connections with memory are triggered by current events.

“the fact that I do feel guilty though, bringing kids I love into a world we’ve trashed”

This trashing of the world along with the senseless cruelties inflicted by man are, of course, done for money – personal gain.

“the fact that it was the costliest natural disaster in Ohio history, the fact that it’s always about money, the fact that they think that’s the only thing that interests people, the fact that they can’t just talk about a violent storm, they always have to translate the damage into cash terms”

The woman regularly mentions her money worries, blaming the cost of medical care. She worries about environmental issues but mainly their impact on human health.

Trump is mentioned along with his Make America Great Again slogan. This is backed up by national educators’ desire to instill patriotism, optimism and contentment in their students.

“the fact that a lot of American history is nothing to be proud of, the fact that it makes you pretty sick, but my students didn’t want to hear any of that, the fact that they wanted everything to make a pretty picture, upbeat”

To get to the story there is a need to read through page after page of frenetic, often upsetting and then inane, tortuous facts.

“the fact that celery puts so much effort into being celery, just to end up filling the plastic lunch box of a not particularly hungry American kid”

I wondered why this structure had been chosen. It is audacious and ambitious but felt done for the sake of it.

Amongst the many books I have not read, or not finished, are tomes such as Don Quixote and Ulysses – books that certain people seem to believe should be appreciated by anyone who wishes to have their opinions on literature taken seriously. Ducks, Newburyport may well end up sitting amongst these supposed greats. Making it through to the last page certainly felt like an achievement.

There is much to ponder within its pages but also a great deal that felt like filler. Had the book been a quarter of its size, had it told the family story and the lion story but without quite so much litany, then perhaps I would have been more impressed. As it is, the sheer number of words and the form in which they were written overwhelmed the beating heart of what is a devastating take-down of human consciousness and behaviour. The issues confronted may be worthy, but I am glad to have finished reading.

Ducks, Newburyport is published by Galley Beggar Press.

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5 comments on “Book Review: Ducks, Newburyport

  1. The Bobosphere says:

    A perfect review. Thanks! (of course I pre-ordered the book)

  2. BookerTalk says:

    I’m impressed by your stamina in getting to the end of this. I get the idea that it’s an internal monologue but one thousand pages would severely test my patience. And all that repetition of the phrase “the fact that”. Style over substance I’m afraid.

  3. Well done for persevering when I suspect many would have given up. This sounds like an ordeal I don’t need to put myself through should I ever get the urge to pick it up (which with my wrists sounds unlikely on weight alone). I think we all know the world can be a depressing place and we have ample opportunity every day to learn about mans inhumanity to man (or any other creature come to that). When I do read, it’s for pleasure and escape, so this would definitely not be my cup of tea.

  4. heavenali says:

    I don’t think I could cope with this. I like it when writers play about with language a little, but this would drive me mad I am sure. Well done for sticking with it.

  5. lizzysiddal says:

    I’ve never made it to the end of Don Quixote and Ulysses either. And who on earth wants to find “bits of broken glass in their lollipop”?

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