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The fact that Ducks, Newburyport is 1,020 pages long, the fact that 95% of the novel is made up of just eight near-endless sentences, without paragraph breaks, some of them spooling over more than 100 pages, the fact that most of the novel is a list of statements, separated by commas, that begin with the phrase “the fact that”, the fact that you soon don’t notice the repetition of “the fact that”, the fact that these statements are also punctuated by the seemingly random emanations of the narrator’s mind, the fact that some of these are songs, earworms (Mad Dogs and Englishmen), the fact that I wouldn’t usually mention that Lucy Ellmann is the daughter of Richard Ellmann, the Joyce scholar, because she’s a serious novelist in her own right, but it feels important here, because in Ducks, Newburyport, she is making a case for a certain type of modernist novel, for difficulty, for pushing the stream-of-consciousness narrative to its limits, the fact that I read her years ago and had forgotten about her acidic, funny novels with their lists and their glowering, the fact that this feels like all of those novels rolled into one, with the story taken out, the fact that you eventually realise the story is there, but you’ve got to work for it, to sift the essential from the noise, the fact that her longtime publisher, Bloomsbury, refused to publish this novel, the fact that you can sort of understand when it contains a passage like “the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn’t ever mention going to the bathroom, the fact that how they handled that in a blizzard, the fact that we’re about due for another blizzard ourselves, gizzard, wizard, buzzard, zigzag, ziggurat, mosque, piecemeal, peacetime, four-foot sword…”, the fact that the novel was picked up by Galley Beggar, which also published Eimear McBride when all other publishers turned her away, the fact that I still worry that no book is good enough to be this long, the fact that 98% of those who pick it up will think it unspeakable guff, the fact that the 2% who get it will really get it.
Well, that was exhausting, but I wasn’t sure how else to give the sense of quite what a strange and complex experience reading Ellmann’s eighth novel is. Ducks, Newburyport is the story of a middle-aged woman in Ohio. She was once a college teacher, but after recovering from cancer has retreated to her kitchen, where she bakes pies and mulls over her life, her children, her regrets. Her ruminations are interrupted every 100 pages or so by passages told from the perspective of a mountain lion. The link between the two narratives is never made explicit, although the novel ends with a moment of connection between a lion and Stacy, the narrator’s eldest daughter.
This is a book about the chaos of consciousness and the artificiality of traditional narrative; it’s about, as the narrator says, “the fact that there’s a lot you just have to blank out if you want to get through life”. Our brains are constantly at work, with memories, dreams, images, scenes from films and books bubbling up and interrupting the flow of our thoughts. Ducks, Newburyport tries to capture the reality of what it’s like to be trapped in the prison of a mind.
The title refers to a moment in which the narrator’s mother was saved from drowning by her sister, and this is another of the book’s central concerns: how provisional life is, the proximity of death, the shadow cast by disease. The narrator excuses herself for her prolixity by noting “the fact that cancer patients are always being told to make memories, so these are my memories”.
Umberto Eco was brilliant on the power of lists, and this is a book full of them. Eco wrote: “How, as a human being, does one face infinity? Through lists… We like lists because we don’t want to die.” There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type, another list, another “the fact that”; but this is a novel that rewards perseverance, is truly unique, and feels like an absence in your life when you finish it.
• Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann is published by Galley Beggar Press (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann review – pushes narrative to its limits | Fiction