“Book of the year ” – Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

I’ve been struggling for a week to identify a hook around which to structure my feeble review of Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellman’s hilarious, gigantic, jaw-breakingly delicious novel. After adjusting different recipes and formulas and still failing to locate the right combination of ingredients, I realise that I won’t ever find just one. Her novel touched me in ways that still profoundly shock me. I felt so connected to her unnamed narrator with whom I share little but superficial similarities: shyness, old movies, and baking; disastrous adjunct-teaching experiences; deep distrust of the gun-toting MAGA dudes, Trump’s presidency, and American corporate greed. I lived inside her mind and its free-flowing riffs and rants for nearly a month, and now that I’ve finished the novel, I feel alone, I miss her voice, I miss my responses and reactions to her monologues. I’ve lost a friend.

Unconventional, brilliant books require unconventional appraisals that utterly disregard the edicts of the book-reviewer’s handbook.

I knew nothing about Lucy Ellmann1 or her previous five or six books or writing before I started hearing about this huge novel that consisted of a single, endless sentence of interior monologues by a mid-40s-year-old housewife and mother of four who operates a bakery/dessert/delivery service out of her suburban Ohio house.

Perhaps her monologues provided a window into how I myself often think and talk to myself, especially since I’m living in a country where I don’t speak the language very well. I walk across a large Osaka park nearly every day and mutter to myself, just like the narrator does during her day of baking and cooking and “kid-herding.”

That is clearly one reason why I loved this book. But there are just so many others. I’ve highlighted some of the more memorable aspects of this absolutely terrific literary achievement that I need to share.2

  1. Here are a few scraps of language that resonate through Ellmann’s entire novel and succinctly describe huge swathes of it:

“when do we ever say what we really want to say. .  . ”

“I think I think about a lot of things for no reason actually. . . ”

“the fact that what is with this constant monologue in my head. . . ”

“for all of life is leap and recoil, recoil and leap. . . ”

2. Ellmann’s narrator evokes Nicholson Baker’s male narrators from such witty and insightful novels as The MezzanineRoom Temperature, and A Box of Matches. In these wonderful novels, the narrator provides placid meditations because he has the time to cogitate. He has no other responsibilities at that time. He is simply alone with his thoughts. The form of his thoughts reflects his environment. Baker’s narrators have access to both Woolf’s room of her own as well as Forster’s view of his own. On the other hand, Ellmann’s narrator is surrounded by a cacophony of children and pets and doorbells and chicken-feed salesmen wearing MAGA hats and ovens baking and cinnamon rolls rising and delivery routes being pored over. Since Ellmann’s narrator has no time or opportunity to compose her thoughts, she must edit them on-the-fly. Here’s an example:

“though [my husband] makes up for a lot, Tennyson, tension, the fact that I don’t appreciate him enough, Leo I mean, not Tennyson, though I’m sure I don’t appreciate Tennyson enough either, the fact that I take Leo for granted sometimes, but not as much as I take Tennyson for granted, Come into the garden Maud. . . ”.

Ellmann’s text is littered with these and I absolutely loved them. They reflect thinking in the wild, unfettered, unrestrained thought, thought on steroids. Here’s another example:

“Native Americans had martin houses from way back, made from hollow gourds, the fact that they must’ve wanted the feathers, the fact that maybe they’re a help in some way around plants too, martins I mean, not Indians, although Indians helped the settlers grow all kinds of stuff, the fact that the Amish helped Aunt Sophia with her garden, the fact that they eat dragonflies and ward off crows, martins not the Amish. . . ”  I dubbed them edits-on-the-fly and noted at least 40 or 50 such phrasings throughout the book.

3. I defy someone to produce a better pun: “SUPER CALLOUS FRAGILE RACIST SEXIST NAZI POTUS.”

4. Ellmann’s narrator is the ultimate unreliable narrator because she is literally the only voice in the novel. This constitutes a redefinition of the trope of unreliable narrator.

5. Alternative title 1: Riffs, Rants, and Recriminations.

6. This novel resembles a detective story; it is all internal dialogues and narrator thoughts presented in a rush of language. The reader gets no customary backstory about the narrator’s life, including names of family members or friends. Slowly we learn to define a relationship to a particular name as well as to sketch out a broad picture of the narrator’s life, history, and situation. This process of detail accumulation is exhausting but invigorating. Like doing a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle without a cover picture or edge pieces. Yet we feel compelled to finish it.

7. Alternative title 2: Eternal Maternal Lament

8. The narrator’s brain resembles a conveyor belt that is revolving through her grey cells, she’s thinking about one topic, which creates a tangent that links to something else, and suddenly a completely unrelated item slips through a crack and joins the main flow of her consciousness without an interruption, without even being commented on; it’s just there. Stream of consciousness fuelled by the 21st century’s non-stop flow of information from social media, the internet, 24-hour news. These “drops” were fun when I recognised the reference, challenging when I couldn’t place them, and infuriating when I had no clue.

9. The narrator has an interior life and it contains thousands of multitudes. She can be brutally honest because no one can read her thoughts, she’s not holding anything back. For example, she imagined leaving a dog in a hot car and wondered if she’d have the bravery to help it. She was also a bit of a prude, so she was unable to use any word stronger than “gosh” and employed childish euphemisms like “sit-me-down-upon.”

10. My favourite running gag: The narrator mentions KFC and 95 billion chickens, and then over the course of the novel, I noted 10 or 11 more similar mentions, and each time the amount of dead chickens rose: 100 billion, 105 billion, 600 billion and finally 1000 billion chickens. That’s a lot of chicken soup, for which she even provides a homemade recipe that sounds much better than mine.

11. Quotation 1:

“in the tropics giant angry ants carry off your nail clippings for you, the fact that I think that would be a real help, the fact that I wonder what they do with them, make bookshelves or something. . . .”

12. Quotation 2: “the fact that even if I am shy and my daughter hates me, there are sunsets of many colours and that is good. . . ”

13. Quotation 3: “I think it’d be great if the right to bear arms thing turned out to be about wearing short sleeves,  the right to bare arms. . . ”

14. The narrator references a character from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books with whom I share the relatively uncommon spelling of my last name: 15 seconds of Scandinavian Warholian fame.

15. Quotation 4:

“the fact that for a long time I really didn’t know a thing, I don’t think, and still don’t, but I wouldn’t tell [my young son] that, the fact that I don’t want him looking down on me too much, not yet at least, not while he’s still shorter than me…”

16. Centuries ago, even the great Homer nodded off. At such times, just remember to turn the page, but not too quickly because you don’t want to miss the next sharp jab, hilarious self-recrimination, or pointed response to the latest idiotic statement from Trump. As I write this sentence, the world is wondering how 18th century America acquired airports. . . .

17. Quotation 5: “sheesh, if your dog’s so unhappy he’d rather live with a cougar,  it’s probably time to get a new dog. . . . ”

18. Quotation 6:

“[His] ninety-eight-year-old mom drives from Queens to Manhattan once a week to have her hair done, the fact that she wasn’t much of a driver even when she could see and hear. . . . ”

19. Runaway rhyming riffs: Ellmann’s narrator often jumps from one word or idea to a series of similar sounding or rhyming words around which she rapidly lines up three or more words or ideas:

“. . . the main rescuer guy kept [enticing the dog] though, with the beef jerky, calling him ‘sweetheart,’ and finally they got hold of him, manhandled, mandible, Mandela, mandala, Manhattan, the fact that Mommy liked a Manhattan once in a while. . . .”

Here’s another example: “nine billion pieces of candy corn are sold annually, annals, anal, oh no no no. . . . ”

One more:

“Daddy was scared we’d be inundated with mouselings, once Edward started having babies, but we never were, the fact that Edward was very restrained, abstemious, abstemiosity, in extremis, estranged, exchange, the fact that once I tried to hatch grocery-store eggs as a kid, but nothin doin. . . .”

The novel’s pages revel in such musicality.

20. A very partial list of some of the words that I’ve never seen before: terpenes, boules, kompromat, burgea, funettes, styptic stick, gamelan, coypu, capybara, degu, phthalates. And no, I didn’t look a single one of them up.

21. As I was reviewing my notes, I restrained myself from exploring dozens and dozens of other themes, linguistic strategies, characters, and language, all of which are all clamouring for liberation.

Any Cop?: This is the book of the year and of the first couple of decades of the century. I feel so fortunate to be standing on the front lines of its reading experience. Over the next few months and years, whenever I read about others who have finally experienced this book or looked beyond its daunting length, I’ll smile to myself and start replaying some of its favourite scenes and characters. I’m eagerly awaiting Ms. Ellmann’s appearance on Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm.3 If I were 30 years younger or independently wealthy I’d return to school for a PhD on how Ms. Ellmann’s book fits into the great American literary tradition of doorstopping novels, like those from Gaddis, Barth, McElroy, and my personal fave, Pynchon. Maybe I’ll start a GoFundMe…

 

Chris Oleson

 

1Ms. Ellmann is the daughter of prestigious literary critics, Richard and Mary Ellmann, and is married to Todd McEwan whose 1980s novel, Fisher’s Hornpipe, is a comic masterpiece.

2Of course, I’m available for a longer, more in-depth review. If any reader has Wallace Shawn’s email, tell him I work cheap.

3https://feeds.kcrw.com/podcast/show/bw

 

 

 

 

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