Lucy Ellmann’s 1000-page novel Ducks, Newburyport is funny and unapologetically difficult

Ducks, Newburyport is asking us to imagine what a total, unboundaried empathy with another person could feel like.

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Ulysses has nothing on this,” says the cover quote from Cosmopolitan, but I haven’t read Ulysses. I had a baby when I was at university instead, and the week I was supposed to be doing Joyce on my modernists module, the boiler in my sketchy flat started spewing out carbon monoxide; I dragged myself to class hollow-eyed and frantic, to explain my household woes to the bearded and nonplussed postgrad who was teaching me. I think now that I must have seemed like a creature from another dimension to him, an emissary from the messy world of the domestic intruding on his realm of art.

Big, literary experiments and maternal obligations do not mesh well. As the Ohioan mother-of-four who narrates Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted novel Ducks, Newburyport complains: “the kids always interrupt if I try to read anything”. So she doesn’t read any more. Instead, she bakes pies and cinnamon buns for wholesale, and is preoccupied by her “kidherding” duties. Once, though, she taught literature to college students, and so she often thinks about books – Austen and Anne Tyler and Anne of Green Gables flitting across her consciousness. We know this because we know everything that flits across her consciousness, because Ducks, Newburyport consists of a huge and exhaustive internal monologue. She and all her maternal obligations exist within exactly the kind of big, literary experiment she’d never find time to read.

It is impossible to review this novel without acknowledging that most other people will never find time to read it either. It is enormous – a four-inch spine, 1,000 pages, straining the straps of the big black handbag I bought years ago to contain all my own offspring’s detritus. It is unapologetically difficult as well – most of those pages are occupied by a single sentence dictating the narrator’s inner life, with a few conventionally punctuated interludes that describe a female mountain lion and her cubs. The extremity of Ducks’ ambition was too much for Ellmann’s former publisher Bloomsbury, which passed on this, her eighth novel. It was picked up instead by Galley Beggar Press, which also brought Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing to the world in 2013.

There is a story, kind of, in that the two mothers – housewife and lion – will eventually encounter each other, and small revelations about the narrator’s past and her relationships flower in the course of her thoughts. But there’s no obvious plot to haul the reader through like the ones in fellow behemoths Infinite Jest and Moby-Dick. You are on your own with the narrator, and it’s a disconcerting experience. The unfiltered torrent captures almost exactly the rhythms of my own inner voice, free associating between memory and to-do lists, between simmering anxieties and moments of surprised self-correction when the mind wanders too far.

It’s often funny: “the fact that [all the narrator’s thoughts are announced with this phrase] I suppose most guinea pig PTSD must go untreated”, goes one scrap of thought, springing from reflections on the unhappy lives of past pets. Her mind chatters across the mundane and the apocalyptic: lost homework, pastry, Donald Trump, school shootings, the cancer from which she’s now recovered (the most “embarrassing” kind, afflicting her “sit-me-down-upon”), her hostile teenage daughter, her dead mother, environmental collapse. Often the two elements meld, and this is where Ellmann’s writing is most electric:

Mother Earth, the fact that everybody’s either thinking about their mothers or trying not to think about their mothers, the fact that nobody ever talks about them… the fact that the world seems indifferent to mothers, yet when they die it’s so empty, the fact that Mommy’s illness broke me, broke me.

What this amounts to is a demand that we address our carelessness about care. In Ducks, Newburyport the invisible expropriation of women’s domestic labour is tied to the despoiling of the environment and the macho degradation of the public sphere. But this is to suggest the novel can be boiled down to one particular theme, when its entire premise refuses any kind of summary. In reading Ducks, wonder gives way to frustration, which gives way to wonder again, until finishing becomes a kind of contemplative vigil – an exercise in dedication.

What, after all, is the point of all this book? The narrator laments how much kitchen towel she wasted trying to perfect her lemon drizzle cake, but that’s got nothing on the amount of paper used to conjure her into existence. Is every phrase here indispensable? Could Ducks not have achieved the same effect at 800, or 500, or even 200 pages? The answer to that is slippery. Yes, in that any reader will have experienced the entire range of the novel’s style within a few pages. No, because the excess is entirely the point.

Ducks is asking us to imagine what a total, unboundaried empathy with another person could feel like; it is chasing the white whale of a single consciousness in a single span of time. I suspect that within its own terms, the fact that it finishes at all counts as a kind of failure, an acceptance of the limits it is trying to refuse. Its inevitably defeated readers can consider themselves proof of Ellmann’s success in her extra-ordinary project. 

Ducks, Newburyport
Lucy Ellmann Galley Beggar
Press, 1,030pp, £14.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace