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Lucy Ellmann: Ducks, Newburyport
This book has attracted attention for three reasons. Firstly, it is over a thousand pages long (1020, to be precise). Secondly, it has been claimed that the entire book is one sentence. This not entirely true though the vast majority of the book is one long sentence, divided by commas which could just as easily be full stops, so – and let’s get this out the way at the beginning – it seems somewhat Joycean (Ellmann’s father wrote a biography of Joyce). Thirdly, it is decidedly post-modernist, with its lists, word associations and so on.
None of this should put you off. You may not like very long books but I have to say that a well-written thousand-pager is something I enjoy, as you get really immersed in it and its world and can shut off the real world for hours on end. Though it is post-modern, it is not annoyingly post-modern. In other words, it is not post-modern for its own sake à la Will Self but enjoyably post-modern, in a way that enhances the novel and the story.
There is no plot. We merely follow the thoughts (in a post-modern rather than realistic way) of a middle-aged woman from Ohio, married to Leo, a structural engineer, her second husband, with four children, all of whom, as is normal, have their own issues and quirks and all of whom see their mother, as she points out, as merely a manual labourer, there to feed them, do their laundry and so on.
She had been a teacher at the fictitious Peolia College – and tells us a bit about that – but had quit after a bout of cancer. Peolia was, in her view, a very poor employer (Peolia pays everyone so poorly, oh, they’re terrible, and no health benefits, well, not for me anyway because I was part-time, the fact that just because you work part-time doesn’t mean you have a body part-time).
Now she bakes pies, which she sells (the pies now pay their way, I think, but nobody’s going to be moving into a mansion any time soon on the strength of them), and ruminates about life, the world/US situation, her children, her past, and anything else that comes into her mind. She admits that since she has had children, she has lost touch with her friends.
She lives in Newcomerstown, where I’ve never really felt all that welcome, the fact that I’m only here for Leo and the fact that I wonder if Newcomerstown would be any different if I’d never been born, the fact that I don’t think it would, the fact that as far as I know I haven’t contributed much to this place. Newcomerstown used to be called Gekelemukpechunk (the Native American name) and she gives a brief history of the place. But she also uses the name to make comparisons with other New-towns, including New Haven (where she grew up), Newark and Newtown.
Many of the sentences-disguised-as-clauses begin with the fact that, her way of moving on to a new subject and we can get many the facts that in a short space. Indeed, we can consider the fact that as a sort of paragraph marker.
As in any good post-modernist book, she has her literary reference and hers is Laura Ingalls Wilder, best-known, of course, for Little House on the Prairie. Wilder and her books make frequent appearances and she compares the life that Wilder and her family had with her own life and that of her own family. They had it harder then, as she points out. But she also mentions how Wilder’s book does not tell the whole truth, as her publisher or perhaps she herself toned some of the harsher bits. She is also curious about some omissions, such as how they went to the bathroom during a blizzard.
Lists are key in any post-modernist work and we get our fair share here. From presidents born in Ohio – she cannot remember them all but here is the complete list to help her – to a huge list of manufacturers of the products found in US households – from Pledge and Crest down to Reese’s Pieces, and many, many more.
Another key feature (Joycean, of course) is ideas by association, where she thinks of one thing and jumps to another vaguely associated with it, often just a random word and then to another and so on. Here is one such list: Laura Ingalls Wilder > Dr Zhivago > Mike Pence > Roe vs Wade > straw > sorting out a mess > the Wizard of Oz > mixing up famous actors. Some of the connections may be obvious, others much less so. Some future Ph. D. student is going to have a wonderful time trying to analyse the rationale behind some of the connections. Sometimes it is done by words that sound similar, such as terroir, terror, terrorism, terabyte, tetrabyte, pterodactyl or Columbus, Columbo, column, calumny.
One key feature is that she examines what is wrong with the United States and many familiar themes appear: guns (NRA supporters really won’t like this book), the death penalty, drinking water quality, the treatment of the Native Americans, the danger of cars, climate change and other environmental issues, the Fukushima disaster, Obamacare being replaced by Trumpcare and a lot of people losing their health insurance as a result, Trump (Fox News, fake news, she says), the fact that we’re about to have World War Three and a host of other issues, including some less obvious ones, such as the fact that computers somehow use up all the energy in the world, the fact that nothing you do seems innocent anymore.
Related to this are the many snippets from the news, often including various crimes and misbehaviour but a whole variety of other issues. These seem to increase towards the end of the book, as we get more and more stories of unpleasant events, often gun-related.
Trivia is another of her post-modernist themes. She has clearly been browsing Wikipedia. Did you know that the banana split was invented in Latrobe, Pennsylvania or that a greater percentage of the passengers were drowned in the La Bourgogne sinking than in the Titanic sinking? No, nor did I. You will learn a lot more trivia from this book, most of it fascinating.
Even her children worry: Gillian had her own existential crisis the other night, crying into her pillow, the fact that when I asked her what was up, she said she was worried about the meaning of life, the meaning of life, the fact that I just didn’t know what to say, the fact that you can’t tell a little kid that it’s quite possible life has no meaning.
Unlike many Americans, she has travelled, having honeymooned in Paris (there are too many Americans in Paris already, she previously said). She remembers some French people at their table talking in French, which she did not understand and she felt sure that they were mocking her and her husband. Paris will appear throughout this book in various comments and comparisons, both the French Paris and Paris, Texas. She also lived in the UK for a year as a child. The Brits don’t see the sun for months, she comments.
Entertainment is, of course, key. She references numerous films and film actors. She likes music and also references numerous songs, all preceded and followed by ♬, so we know it is a song. Her tastes are eclectic. She likes not only the obvious popular songs but also Beethoven and even mentions Philip Glass and Steve Reich, admitting that they will not be particularly well-known in her part of Ohio. Indeed, her husband is a Messiaen fan.
She makes pies for sale and used to do cakes and has four children a husband to feed, so, of course, food plays a key role. We get numerous of examples of what she bakes and what she eats and what she and others like to eat. We even get a complete list of the contents of her freezer. LET THEM EAT CAKE she states at one point and there are numerous (and very tempting) references to cakes, including what was (but is no more) her signature cake – lemon drizzle cake.
At the beginning of this review, I said there was no plot. That is not quite true. Every so often, we will move away from the continuous paragraph and revert to normal sentence structure. In these sections, we will follow the story of a mountain lioness. Why? It is not clear, though it is an interesting diversion. We follow the female mountain lion, who seems to behave very sensibly, far more so than the humans, falling in love, if that is the right word, having her children and bringing them up correctly as mountain lions. All mountain lions are one. You are just one example of a lion. Mountain-lionhood is strong and immense, and goes beyond the individual, she says to her cubs. However this is a poignant story, with a specific plot and using conventional sentences to tell the story. This story eventually overlaps with the main story.
And then there is Ronny. Ronny is a deliverer and is always dropping by. As she points out he is one of the few people outside the family, she has actually has to speak to. Ronny loves Trump and guns and hates Obama (he thinks Obama’s the devil) and wears a MAGA hat. He thinks everybody should be in jail, or else executed, well, practically everybody, calls just about everybody an idiot and he thinks Trump should bomb Chicago, because they all drive like idiots. Ronny is not very bright. He asked me if you can get there[London, England] by car, from here, and if Paris and London are the same city, the fact that then he wanted to know if they shared the Queen. Ronny, perhaps not surprisingly, goes somewhat off the rails later in the book.
So what is this story really about? Well, as mentioned above, there are a lot of themes but our heroine/narrator is a woman who is unsure of herself, what she is and where she is going. She is well aware of her roles in relation to others – as a wife (though it seems sex does not take place much), mother, baker and, even though her parents are long since dead, as a daughter.
Her mother was very important to her and she is referred to frequently. Indeed, the title of the book refers to a key incident in her mother’s life. The mother will appear throughout the book and it is clear our narrator misses her very much.
However, as regards the rest of her life, her own life when not seen in relation to to others, she is unsure of herself, who she is, where she is going. We have seen this above, in relation to the local community, where she has little contact and, indeed, as mentioned, the contact outside the family seems to be mainly with the distinctly unsavoury Ronny.
To anchor herself, she gives us a long – very long – list of what is certain in her life, from the obvious: the sun will rise and set every day; without fail; absolutely without fail; the moon will come and go too to the less obvious (to us, at least): Hunt’s tomato sauce will see us through many a meal; Jane Fonda will improve herself. The list again includes many of the ingredients of her food cupboard. On a personal level, she does say that Leo will care for her (but does not mention love, except in relation to Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet) and the only people to get mentioned more than once are her son, Jake, her mother and her husband, Leo.
Ellmann puts a lot of quotations at the end of the book and one is very apposite, from Edith Wharton: I had no one but myself to talk to, and it is absurd to write down what one says to oneself. This could perhaps sum up much of the book.
Our narrator is the the main character but there is no doubt, to me at least, that the heroine of the book is the mountain lioness, who behaves far more sensibly than any of the humans and Ellmann makes this point clearly on several occasions. A very long read but a very worthwhile one.
First published 2019 by Galley Beggar Press