“I have not read all the books I want to read, not even half,” thinks the narrator of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport. “It doesn’t even take all that long to read a book so I don’t know why I don’t.” The book that contains her is precisely the kind of book she wouldn’t have time to read: a 1,000-page epic, written almost entirely in one sprawling sentence. But while the length of the novel has made headlines, far more striking is that, once you’ve read it, its length doesn’t seem particularly remarkable. It doesn’t even feel all that long.
Instead, what thrills is the novel’s density, vibrancy and, crucially, its innovation. The Goldsmiths Prize rewards work that breaks the mould and opens up new possibilities for the novel: Ducks is the kind of book that feels unmistakably contemporary, but that you can’t quite believe didn’t exist before now. Turn to any page and you’ll find it tightly packed and working overtime to redefine what the novel can do.
The anonymous narrator’s thoughts, each preceded by the phrase “the fact that”, rapidly unspool before us, obeying no logic other than the instinctive associations that dictate all our internal monologues, interrupted and re-routed by daily life. The narrator is an Ohioan woman raising her four kids while running a bakery from her kitchen. But the key facts and events of her life are glimpsed in asides: neither provide the narrative with its driving force. That is nothing less than human consciousness itself.
Her mind is an exhilarating place to inhabit. We dart from the political (“the fact that whenever one of the kids goes over to someone’s house for the first time, I ask the parents what their gun situation is, the fact that I absolutely hate doing it but you have to”) to the devastatingly personal (“Mommy, the fact that I miss her, the fact that I never got over her illness, the fact that it broke me”) to the meta (“the fact that what is with this constant monologue in my head”). This is a psychological landscape cluttered by the internet (“Why Your Dog Hates Your Cell Phone”; “How Nude Yoga Has Helped Me”) and pop culture: “the fact that about three quarters of the way through It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep suddenly appears outside her house, picking big ripe tomatoes in her perfectly manicured vegetable garden, which you never even saw before, the fact that there’s no sign of a gardener, the fact that are we supposed to believe she’s solely responsible for that immaculate vegetable garden”. But themes do emerge: the gendered Sisyphean task of domestic labour, the anxieties of modern technology, and the violence that looms over America: school shootings, police brutality, violence against women and, most urgently, the impending climate catastrophe.
It’s a cliché to call vivid characters “fully formed”. With Ducks, Ellmann reminds us that the very idea of recreating on the page a “fully formed” human being in all their unfathomable depth is absurd – while getting closer to achieving that impossible aim than any writer in recent memory.
Lucy Ellmann will also appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in conversation with Anna Leszkiewicz, on 30 November. Tickets are available here