“The Numbness of Muted Beings”: Lucy Ellman’s “Ducks, Newburyport”

Ducks, Newburyport cover

In “Raise The Dead”, one of the songs that appears on Santiago, an album released last year by my friend Amit Dattani, he sings, “We can’t worry about those things / That might not become things / But they could still be things / So we should worry”. Every time I’ve seen him deliver these lines live (you can watch for yourself here), he gets a laugh – and rightly so, since Amit’s raconteur spirit is a central part of what makes him such a wonderful performer and songwriter. But it’s also true that the song – it’s called “Raise The Dead”, guys – is an awful lot darker than that. In the circular logic of those lines lies the true, inescapable and corrosive terror of anxiety and obsessive compulsion.

Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport arrives on the 2019 Booker shortlist to anatomise exactly this phenomenon – but does so with considerably less interest in economy. At a thousand pages and for the most part just a single sentence, the novel rolls along for much of its vast bulk without a single full stop appearing in the main narrative. If indeed “narrative” is a word that is meaningful in the context of this text: the narrator, an Ohio housewife who used to teach college-level English literature but who, following the traumatic illness and death of her mother, now bakes pies for a living, spends much of the novel in the kitchen; she spends some of it in a broken-down car when it’s quite cold outside; then she returns home to bake some more pies, because the ones she baked before have spoiled during the wait for the rescue vehicle; around nine-tenths in (really, precise figures cease to be relevant) something quite significant happens, but I wouldn’t want to spoil that for you. Interspersed among all this are very short vignettes – never more than a page or two – that focus on the life of a lioness and her cubs; they are written in beautiful, stately prose that comes as a soothing balm amidst the endless run-on sentence they interpolate.

The lioness is a relief from the housewife because the latter’s internal monologue is an endless, free-associative flood of triggers and terrors:

the fact that Mommy’s illness wrecked my life, the fact that it broke me, the fact that I am broken, the heartbroken, heart operation, heart scar, broke, Yueyaquan, Leo, the fact that that mean doctor gave me antibiotics for bronchitis, but so reluctantly, the fact that he seemed to hate me, and I never knew why … [p. 27]

And so on. These fears sit alongside others occasioned by the state of the world – “everything seems so aggressive now” [p. 367], she reflects – and, indeed, by its apparently imminent and fiery destruction: “if it’s the end of the world, bud, it’s the end of the world” she mentally shrugs [p. 186], and yet worries away at the idea that the Ohio river is too polluted, or that polar bears may soon be extinct, or “the fact that there are men who cut the fins off sharks and toss the sharks back into the sea, where they sink to the bottom and suffocate, the fact that I shouldn’t think about it” [p. 928]. She worries constantly about guns, too, and “the fact that” people are “armed, just to deliver garden compost and turf and chicken feed” [p. 143]; she worries about her children getting shot at the mall, her husband getting shot at the university where he teaches; she worries about being shot in her own kitchen, about her friends being shot; she interviews every parent at whose house her own children play about their gun ownership. She worries that “Republicans prefer respectful, obedient children to independent, curious, rebellious ones” [p. 342]; she worries about “what will happen to the White House vegetable patch now” [p. 396].

The narrator is in other words tortured by knowledge, feels adrift within it and the verities that are used to explain it all away: “the fact that people are always saying this isn’t ‘who we are as a nation’, but, well, it kind of is who are are” [p. 86]. And alongside these external pressures are all the petty trivialities of modern life: whole pages go by describing ingredients and recipes, listing towns that end in “ville”, remembering “the fact that Iwo Jima was trapezoid” [p. 702]. No thought is too trivial not to appear in the monologue – for example, we are treated to “the fact that Henry Higgins could have gotten two different sound tattoos tattooed on himself” [p. 892] (I don’t know either). Recurring themes – Jane Austen, David Attenborough, the Amish, the catchiness of pop songs – pepper all this and provide something approaching a structure or a sort of unity, but the real point of Ducks, Newburyport is onslaught, the impossibility of containment: “who has time … anymore,” the narrator asks, “leisure time, mod cons, the fact that Abby liked to do all those sorts of things but I don’t have time to stitch a nine-patch” [p. 348]; “there will always be monkeys in the zoo” she supposes [p. 672].

What makes all this compelling – and I did find it compelling, affecting, evocative – is that taken together the prose depicts a person – and also possibly a culture – in collapse. Despite “the fact that it begins to seem positively unAmerican to internalize things” [p. 400], our narrator is incapable of switching off: indeed, she realises that “when this monologue in my head finally stops, I’ll be dead” [p. 514]; even if that makes Ducks, Newburyport in some ways a vital celebration of life, it is also and at the same time a rather bleak portrayal of it, in all its exhausting intensity. “I must be at a low point,” the narrator remarks, “to get so riled up like this about something that happened years ago” [p. 393] – but in fact it is her constant condition. She is always low, and she is in part this way because there is no other way to be: people “can’t just be thinking about coffee and ham on rye, the fact that they’re probably worrying about a lousy fiancé or an ominous lump or if they’ll make the mortgage repayments this month” [p. 187]. The monologue doesn’t stop; the worries always metastasise (and, yes, the narrator has had cancer and is anxious constantly that it will return).

Time is out of joint; humans have built a society and a culture in which they do not feel secure (“the fact that it’s best not to know why Trump does the things he does, the fact that he’s making everyone dizzy and nauseous” [p. 235]). In contrast, the lioness is confident and commanding, becalmed in the knowledge that “all of life is really recoil and leap, recoil and leap” [p. 11]: “you’re linked to the pleasures, pains, and drama […] All living things are” [p. 407]. What separates human and animal, then, isn’t higher reasoning but terror; the irony is that it is the lioness whose habitat is being destroyed, her species that is being hunted, by the humans who are barely conscious of the world through which they crash. Late in the novel, the narrator’s daughter develops “some kind of rapport with that woebegone creature” [p. 998] – and in that line is what approaches in this novel hope.

This recreation of a single individual interacting with an over-riding culture – a technique that requires the reader constantly to inspect the space between what is said and what might be signified, in order to understand both context and plot – isn’t without its quirks. The narrator routinely corrects herself – “tax papers, taxpayers, I mean” [p. 370] – which feels pretty artificial given that the text poses as a pure representation of a monologue without an audience (who clarified oneself to oneself in this way?). Likewise, I can imagine a shorter novel – perhaps not much shorter, but shorter all the same – that achieved the same sense of totality. That is, Ducks, Newburyport – for all its internal rhymes and rhythms – could still have used a bit of editing. The typographic sallies – big numbers to represent the sizes of pots and pans, or reproduced advertisements – add little. But, in the face of the sheer scale of Ellman’s novel, these are tiny quibbles indeed; they are washed away in the flood – and, compared with a similar attempt to write a contemporary modernist novel such as Will Self’s Umbrella, Ducks, Newburyport achieves all this whilst also managing to be eminently readable (if, ultimately, also and necessarily a feat of endurance).

There’s another song that the novel reminds me of, however, and that’s Sheryl Crow’s “The Na-Na Song“: when Ellman routinely pens lines such as “sex slaves, trafficking, porno pics, ISIS, beheadings, 9/11, 9/11, Oprah […] grab ’em by the stars and stripes” [p. 828], it’s impossible not to think it might just be incantatory nonsense. Does the novel capture a moment, or does it over-inflate one? Perhaps only time – and repeated readings – will tell. But, perhaps especially in a book like this, it is remarkable that we can’t dismiss the possibility that here is a work of lasting value; if the Booker judges are feeling brave they might be tempted to recognise that.