Ducks, Newburyport

04 Mar 2024

I remember distinctly the first time I held a Lucy Ellmann book, unboxing the slim volume in the basement of the bookstore in which I was working in 2003. Initially seduced by the cartoonish suggestion of smut on its cover, I suspected that this was not entirely a serious work. The unusual stylistic conceit that was apparent from leafing through the first pages seemed to confirm this, though there was the suggestion of something more to it, a blend of the irreverent and existential. I had to have it, and that copy never made it to the shop floor. I was so enthused with it that I almost immediately sent my copy, via a somewhat dubious inter-branch transfer, to a bookseller friend across the country, and if my unreliable memory serves this was also the start of a torrid love affair between us, which, though vulgar of me, I only mention to illustrate the potency of Ellmann’s writing. I got everything else I could find in print, eagerly awaited her next release, and then . . . nothing happened for a while. And so I was surprised discovering in 2022, isolated mid-pandemic, in an effort to reconnect with the reading habits of my younger self, that Ellmann had written a 1000 page stream of consciousness novel, endorsed by my alma mater no less (ah, Goldsmiths, still a reliable champion of so many things I hold dear), had got the attention of the Booker lot even, the panel for which I assume far too timid to promote such an outlandishly ambitious work into its coveted first prize.

I picked it up shortly before my father passed away this year. Its themes of grief and parental bonds of course made it an apt companion, and it wove its way into, became an essential part of my own grieving process. Its length and narrative style intimidated me at first, but my fears were soon allayed once I made the commitment to start it. It was, contrary to my projections, surprising in its accessibility.

Literature, Peter Kivy asserts, is also a performance art, albeit one in which we most frequently perform out the meaning to ourselves. I quickly found that I needed a more compelling performance to do the work justice. I was so charmed by the dearness of the narrator which seemed to evoke my same fondness for Philippa Dunne in my head. In the madness of grief I even sought out Dunne, in the hope that she would have a Cameo or some such, to read sections of the novel. I was unsuccessful, but I settled by reading almost the entire work aloud, to myself, in my best (bad) impersonation of a sweetly fragile, middle-aged Irish mum that Dunne plays so well in both Motherland and The Walshes, in spite of the knowledge that the narrator is from New England. It did afford me though a kind of softness that is not so readily available in my own voice, and one more willing to embrace the flights of whimsy, pathos and daftness that the narrator invites. Through reading aloud, I felt at times almost that I had become, if only momentarily, her. And I’m sad that I’m now done with the book, it’s over now and I have to enter some new phase of life and loss without her.

It is curious to me that the narrator frequently talks about the stories from Hollywood films from the point of view of the actors who played in them, as if the characters in the stories were really them. I wonder to what degree this hints at Ducks also being a semi-autobiographical novel. It would be pointless to labor over this, though there are some undeniable at least superficial similarities with the people in the novel and aspects of the author’s family life that are in the public domain. Either way, there is something distinctly authentic and heartfelt in its being what appears to me a 1000 page lover letter to the author’s mother.

Over the course of those pages I think I have come to know more about this fictional character than any other, that she has confided so much in me, details that she may not even have revealed to any other person in the world of the novel, things she may not even know herself. She is polite to a fault, she does not swear, dodges obscenity and intrusive erotic thoughts (perhaps uncomfortably the most overtly erotic portion of the novel concerns the interactions of two mountain lions). That the novel does not indulge the kinds of impulses more readily associated with the stream of consciousness novel with abandon is refreshing. She is not quite repressed but rather wishes to forget all that is most ghastly about human frailty - namely a sexualized conception of self in the wake of life-changing illness, and the echoes of her own mother’s devastating decline. She is quite unafraid, conversely, to stare down the most appalling aspects of American history, right up to the present day. She is a mirror for the mess America is in, and a hint at its salvation - mothers and motherhood (the quotation from Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the Japanese marine engineer who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, that “the only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies”, included at the end of the book, seems to cement this idea). She is concerned with the right way to do a lot of things (baking, color combinations, purple martin house maintenance), a kind of distillation of the wisdom of many Ellmann mothers no doubt. She seems to have at once exquisite taste and is yet doggedly unfussy. She has memorized a litany of massacres and headlines. There is something charming about her little grudges and her going back and forth, trying to see everyone from both sides. I love her dearly more than any other character I’ve known.

Though it has been widely praised, it has also attracted some I think unfair criticisms. Kirkus Reviews feels it “could have made its point in a quarter the space”, and Nick Major, writing in The Herald, “can’t say for certain what this novel’s all about.” I’m only providing these here because I feel they say so much about what I find wrong with the literary establishment in general. At the risk of sounding crass, there is something positively Freudian about mens’ need for a novel to have a single point or for its being over as quickly as possible. It contains, as Walt Whitman says, multitudes. It is a novel surging with ideas. Narratives undulate, appearing at first barely visible on the horizon, persistently swell and gain force each time they come round again before crashing onto the shore of awareness with drama scarcely imaginable from its point of origin. The narrator frequently derides herself as a “whirling dervish” yet this is precisely the quality that so successfully drives the emotional heart of this more womanly novel. “recoil and leap, leap and recoil”.

“I think these are […] rules, we are just used to believing that you can’t do that, you’re not allowed to keep a sentence going, but actually it turned out it is possible, and why not?” Ellmann says in her promotional video for The Booker Prize. For better or worse I may not have dared to write a review of this or any other book so unashamedly from my own subjective experience without her influence. I hope she is right about women and motherhood, and that the future is more feminine and motherly. I sorely miss those qualities which pervaded my consciousness for all too brief a time this year. I hope that they did change me in the process, and I am better for their influence.