Lucy Ellmann – Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, 2019)
A thousand-page long story about an Ohio housewife, Ducks, Newburyport isn’t like anything you’ve read before. Told in a running monologue, it’s a breathtaking display of writing and wordplay, a book that’s equally hard to get into as it is to put down.
Set in rural Ohio, Ducks follows a housewife through several months of her life, raising kids, baking pies and generally worrying about the state of America. There isn’t really much in way of plot – although a subplot featuring a wild mountain lion pops in and out – because a lot of her life is a lot like ours. She wakes up, makes breakfast, goes for drive and gets a flat tire.
Indeed, much of the appeal and drive of Ducks is from how Ellmann wrote her story. Wordplay abounds, lists and names repeating and riffing off each other. The monologue is occasionally jagged, jumping from insight to reflection to observation. In the span of a page she’ll go from thinking about a dream or worrying about her husband Leo to memories of her mother or recalling a useless factoid. SEO-perfect headlines pop up, as do lists of acronyms (there is a glossary in the back of the book). Basically, it’s like someone’s tapped into our collective unconscious, into the sea of words and headlines we’re swimming through.
It’s much more than just that, however. It’s a book that’s also well written. Even as she’s going through a litany of names or places, she propels her protagonist through Ohio. Almost without us realizing it, we’re going through the events of the day and following along as people come and go, as she delivers pies and wonders why her daughter is so obsessed by Instagram videos. It’s a compelling kind of rhythm, and once you’re into it, it’s hard to let go.
But of course, that’s the tough part, too. This can be, especially for people not used to experimental fiction, a tough nut to crack. The repetition of phrases like “The fact that…” or frequent allusions to characters or events not-yet-described can be off-putting. It’s something that’s easy to be overwhelmed by at first glance, or to write off as too high-handed. Too “literary.”
For example, here’s a passage selected at random, a taste of Ellmann’s style throughout Ducks:
“…the fact I’ve given up asking Stacy to do anything, for fear of her sulks and freak-outs, ‘Speak, voice of young America,’ EZ Squirt, Philly Dip, ETHS, the fact that it would make my day if Stacy would just put her clothes in the hamper once in a while, in that lion’s den of a bedroom of hers, the fact that she hates me going in there, but sometimes I have to, the fact that pigs are cleaner than people any day, boarlets, the fact that hogs make their own bed, though I’m not sure if they do it every morning…” (pg 16)
Passages like that, with their jumping around and runaway freight train of thoughts, are probably why Ducks is frequently compared to Joyce’s Ulysses (witness the cover blurb, which compares it favorably to Joyce). But that’s not exactly right. Joyce’s book is kaleidoscopic and all encompassing – he famously quipped that Dublin could be rebuilt from it – but it’s also showcase of styles and prose types. Ducks is a different kind of beast. It’s a mountain lion where Ulysses is a fox. It’s not a bag of tricks; it’s a meditation on America and on the times we live in.
Throughout the book, but especially as it reaches it’s back half, Ducks is frequently concerned about the anger and gun-culture of the United States. Violence and destruction pops up in unexpected places, people turn out to be preppers (complete with a Bug Out Bag), and guns are fired. And it’s not just the narrator, either. In the sections with the lion, there’s an increasing tension and sense of doom, a feeling that things aren’t as they should be. There’s a disturbing scene set in a private zoo late in the book, an almost gothic scene of horror as the lion wanders through a crowd of sick, sad animals and human corpses.
At a shade over 1,000 pages and with the promise of a never-ending steam of thoughts, Ducks can seem like a daunting and impenetrable door-stopper of a book. But given some time, and some effort, it proves to be book that’s warm yet wary, optimistic but scared, smart and self-effacing. It captures the feeling of being in – or near – America as it inches towards an election and seems like it’s about to come apart at the seams. It’s a book that rewards readers who stick with it.
In these pandemic times, where everyone’s in their own bubbles and we’re also wary about our neighbours, Ducks, Newburyport is the perfect late summer read. Strongly recommended.