Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. It stretches, bends and pushes the boundaries of what the novel can do. It’s stream of consciousness. It’s 1,000 pages long. And it’s all one sentence.
Her epic is told from the point of view of an Ohio housewife, as she tries to make sense out of the Trump era, her anxiety about climate change, why her teenage daughter won’t speak to her, and how to manage her pie-baking business.
“… the fact that matter cannot be created, or destroyed, but pies can, the fact that mass is a measure of how much material exists within the body, but I just measure how much cinnamon mixture I need for my pies …”
The novel’s reach is all-encompassing as it attempts to capture our zeitgeist, with all its conflicts and contradictions, from its national and international tensions, right down to individual emotions — to even her innermost thought processes. It’s as though the reader is standing on a platform inside the narrator’s brain, watching as her train(s) of thought whiz by.
Ellmann comes from a family steeped in literature and scholarship.
Her mother, Mary Ellmann, was an essayist and critic who in 1968 published a ground-breaking book called Thinking About Women. It opens with what seems to be a transcript of an interview with Mary Ellmann — the initials ME appear to stand for Mary Ellmann, and the initial I for interviewer. But it’s really an imagined dialogue of the writer with herself: I and me.
This ability to break form for her own ends is what Lucy Ellmann calls the literary “mother’s milk” she grew up on.
Her father, Richard Ellmann, was the widely celebrated biographer of W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde — and of course James Joyce. Ducks, Newburyport has been compared by critics to Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, Ulysses.
It’s true that Ellmann deploys the same narrative technique as Joyce, but that’s where she’d like the comparisons to stop. Ideas host Nahlah Ayed quoted Joyce’s famous line about his Ulysses to Ellmann:
“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”
Ellmann chuckled, then said:
“It’s such an arrogant thing to say. Why do we have to be immortal anyway? I don’t get it. I’m not interested in deceiving anybody, or confusing anybody. I want clarity. And I’m interested in getting straight through to people.”
That straightness is arguably the most underrated and unnoticed aspect of Ducks, Newburyport. The narrator is likeable, decent and vulnerably underconfident.
“… the fact that I have the worst memory of anyone I know, the fact that most of my life is wasted on me …”
For all its verbal pyrotechnics, the novel also has a warm, beating heart at its moral centre. She’s perpetually shocked at the everyday meanness of people driving, the shrill tones dominating airwaves, and almost paralytic with fear and revulsion at the regularity with which mass shootings occur in the U.S.
Yet what keeps the narrator going, and perhaps the novel itself, is the humanity that animates them both:
“… the fact that they rescued three little boys in that Italian earthquake, or avalanche, and when the rescuers reached the boys they said ‘Come out, my love,’ the fact that they said ‘Come out, my love’ as they pulled the boys free, and for some reason that made me cry, the kindness …”
This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.