Chewing the fat
Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann, Galley Beggar Press, 1030pp, 2019, £13.99 (paperback)
In October another fatberg the size of a double-decker bus, reportedly weighing in at a modest 40 tonnes, was hand-scraped from the sewers of London by Thames Water engineers. Monuments to our collective waste, these titanic coagulations of faeces, fats and unflushables – a mixture of common household products, such as cotton buds and wet wipes – are a uniquely unnatural disaster and symptom of modern living. They are a sordid example of what happens when a system becomes ill-equipped to deal with the unprecedented quantities of crap pumped into it.
Midway through Lucy Ellmann’s doorstop of a novel, Ducks, Newburyport, the heroine, an unnamed mother of four and self-employed baker living in Ohio, ponders the berg as one of the facts of life: ‘the fact that they found a fatberg in the London sewer, the fact that it’s Victorian, not the fatberg, the sewer, the fact that London sewers can’t cope anymore, the fact that they’re clogged up, the fact that fatbergs are made up of, well . . . all kinds of unmentionable things.’ Ellmann asks the same of us: ‘that maybe we have too much happening inside our skulls.’ This is not intellectual posturing but recognition that Brits on average check their smartphone every 12 minutes, with one in five of us spending as much as 40 hours a week online accessing a chaos of fact.
Its book-length sentence stretching, for the most part unbroken, across nearly 1,000 pages, Ducks is an encyclopaedic novel clogged with so-called ‘facts’, from clickbait headlines (‘Dog Sees Himself On TV And Freaks Out’) to endless plot summaries of Harrison Ford films. This data overload is, on some level, a distraction from what we expect the novel to do, which is to paint a picture of contemporary America from the comfort of the protagonist’s kitchen in Newcomerstown, Ohio. Instead, Ellmann leads us down the garden path, only to point back to show that our house has caught fire.
Ducks, in a very literal sense, sets out to record what is ‘happening inside our skulls.’ We experience the bulk of the novel polemically, from inside the head of its heroine, as an internal monologue. Each thought is punctuated by the phrase ‘the fact that’ and forms an on-going, supposedly unfiltered list diarising her world in real-time. Ellmann abandons fusty Victorian hang-ups – chapters, full stops, conventional paragraphing – in favour of spiralling clauses which freewheel dizzyingly from one fragment to the next. Topics are typically wide-ranging; pop culture mixes with song lyrics, earworms and other mental ticks. Opening to a random page, we encounter everything from Netflix to the 1968 American Technicolor film The Odd Couple, brain deadness, motherhood, the Second Amendment, animal extinctions, ‘♬ London Bridge is falling down ♬,’ nuclear war and the fizzy drink 7-Up. The novel is ostensibly about some of these things, which a parallel plot about a mountain lion raising her cubs, sparsely written in regular prose, gradually makes apparent.
Unsurprisingly, the result is overwhelming and not entirely pleasant. Reading Ducks is like trying to watch your favourite TV show, with the radio on, while someone recites the Wikipedia entry for All the President’s Men, as you scroll through Twitter. Plot is buried beneath voiceover and an unrelenting torrent of information which constantly waylays our narrator. The glossary at the back of the book, wryly subtitled ‘A round-up . . . sanitized for your comfort,’ feels especially mischievous for this reason. Reading a whole page dedicated specifically to listing creek names – ‘Mill Creek, Little Mill Creek, Turkey Run, Doughty Creek, Laurel Creek, Bucklew Creek,’ and so on – is enough to drive even the most patient reader barmy (going ‘crazee’ with an emphatic double ‘e’ is a running concern in the novel). As with the narrator’s passion for baking, sifting through the torrent, we worry that we’ve lost the plot in the literal sense, only to breathe a sigh of relief at the mention of the school bus. Neglecting wider issues – such as the mental health crisis or ecological collapse – in pursuit of the perfect Tarte Tatin, is itself a wilful kind of madness, a kind of ‘fiddling while Rome burns,’ she says. Ultimately, the novel rewards hunting for narrative clues, in deciding what’s important to you, the reader. But, honestly, do we really need to know the full extent of her cupboards and her freezer to be convinced of this?
Well, quite possibly. Much has been made of Ellmann’s father, Richard Ellmann, an eminent Joyce scholar, and the influence of Joyce on the book. Molly Bloom meets Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, some suggested. While this makes for excellent jacket fodder (‘Ulysses has nothing on this,’ says the cover quote from Cosmopolitan), as Ellmann has herself suggested, Ducks shares an oblique but closer kinship with the digressional, proto-novelistic writings of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy from the mid-1700s. Her protagonist’s fixations on particular words or phrases, like ‘hydrangea’ and, yes, ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, recall the figurative ‘Hobby-Horses’ of Sterne’s comic characters, such as Uncle Toby’s fixation with the military. ‘Hobby-Horses’ are those activities or subjects that possess us galvanically in ‘the manner of electrified bodies,’ writes Sterne,
– and that, by means of the heated parts of the rider, which come immediately into contact with the back of the Hobby-Horse, – by long journies and much friction . . . that the body of the rider is at length fill’d as full of Hobby-Horsical matter as it can hold;—so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other.
In other words, the things which preoccupy us, which are so divertingly interesting as to get us carried away, form a pretty exact notion of who we are. Ducks, too, ‘is at length fill’d as full of Hobby-Horsicial matter as it can hold;’ for example, the freezer contents list informs and distracts from, in equal measure, the novel’s rising tensions. Formally, it is less radical and more readable than many have made out. Like Sterne, Ellmann’s project is historical rather than mythical; there are no sirens to lure us off course, as there are in Ulysses. But in Ellmann’s hands, reality does just fine: a family trip to the mall reads like high drama and culminates in an uncanny apocalyptic vision for our times. Snatches of plot, however mundane, begin to glimmer in the torrent of information. It is through the accumulative brilliance, and through the virtuosity and wit of Ellmann’s writing, that her associative, ‘Hobby-Horsical’ style comes into its own.
Vaulting from birthday cakes to 9/11, it’s hard not to marvel at her verbal gymnastics. A thought about domestic abuse while baking takes us from the writer Shirley Jackson, who ‘had a difficult husband but didn’t kill herself,’ to a classic pun from the Eighties comedy film Airplane!: ‘having a difficult husband can surely wear you down . . . and stop calling me Shirley’ (my emphasis). The jarring of the trivial and deadly serious doesn’t stop there. To bake a number 9 cake, she explains, ‘[I] use the number 1 pan and a smaller angel food cake pan, because I still don’t have a 9 pan, a 9/11 pan. . .’. Quasi-Airplane! comedy is hijacked, as her son’s birthday reminds her of the jihadi suicide pilots who flew into the World Trade Centre. Suddenly, the ‘angel food cake pan’ takes on an awkward, almost unintended grace that deflates on touch.
In post-Bush America, the ‘War on Terror’ is a psychological war fought closer to home, behind white picket fences, where, amongst other things, domestic terrorism poses an even greater threat. It’s enough to send a mother ‘spiraling into a panic about . . . the Second Amendment’ – and not without cause, we learn as the story unfolds. But the author slips up here, seemingly losing track, as her character later admits that she doesn’t know what film the ‘Shirley’ joke comes from. It’s the only instance where Ellmann’s gaming of language gets ahead of itself and embroils the author in her own yarn. Easily subsumed by its subtle meta-commentary, one marvels instead at the sheer extent of the book’s interconnectedness.
‘I don’t know how animals think but I think in spirals, dizzying spirals,’ writes Ellmann. Her character goes on to despair: ‘I never seem to get a chance to think about what I want.’ Moving from one line to the next down the page, reading the novel is breathlessly dizzying. The mother’s anxiety about her craft as a freelancer (a lifestyle Ellmann, as a writer, is familiar with) is a constant battle while sustaining her family. How does one prevent their lattice pastry from being ‘out-spiralled by some other local piemaker’? Spiralling clauses, downwards spirals, spiralling depression – the only thing that isn’t spiralling out of control is Ellmann’s writing, which slowly coils, in a circumlocutory way, to a very sharp point.
At its heart, Ducks, Newburyport reminds us that ‘moms are at the center of everything . . . motherland, mother nature, mother tongue, Mother Goose.’ While only a small portion of the novel, the subplot about a mountain lion caring for her cubs anchors our narrative intrigue. During these passages, as conventional grammar is restored, we learn that animals may not think in spirals; that their actions are far more telling. Here, the novel seems to find its centre, as Ellmann writes lucidly about survival, sex and maternal instinct. It’s perhaps no coincidence, that in referring to the map at the back of the book, we should find the lioness’s journey from Appalachia to Alligator Mound also takes the shape of a spiral. As a figure for her inspiration, Ellmann lays claim to the progress of the novel as a search for a ‘center of being,’ which is, in this instance, particular to the two narratives, circling one another and eventually meeting in the middle. It’s a long and winding and seemingly plotless trail, but Ellmann rewards patience as the second half of the novel culminates in a thrilling climax.
* * *
So, what do we learn about the life and opinions of Ellmann’s well-educated, divorcee atheist? She is stoutly anti-Trump, but not too keen on Hillary Clinton either; probably a Bernie Sanders supporter like Ellmann herself. She is crushed by medical bills, her mother’s death and the pressures of freelance work. She is funny and yet eye-rollingly prudish. She has lost her libido. It is perhaps no wonder that one of her favourite novels, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is about the troubled relationship between debt and marriage. Indeed, her obsession with nineteenth-century novels, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, serve as a constant reminder that her own experience of reality is, at the very least, messier than the stories promise. Fortunately for us, Ducks is not like other stories.
Poking fun at Netflix’s professional declutterer Marie Kondo, Ellmann balks at the need for everything to deliver – as Kondo puts it, ‘spark joy’ – or else risk being chucked. She laughs at the idea of ‘doing the joy business, hugging tax returns to our heart,’ because to declutter so absolutely elides small, mundane, but often necessary details. After all, life is messy and not always conducive to ‘doing the joy business.’ Ellmann goes one step further and likens regimented decluttering to a kind of death: ‘the fact that snipers and suicide bombers and American police officers are the real declutterers . . . they probably get a kick out of that.’ We might take this as aesthetic and moral justification for fatter books to chew over, for roomier forms that might better accommodate the mess. Certainly, if Ellmann applied the principles of Kondo’s joy fascism to her writing, doubtless her novel would be slimmed, pruned, tidied to oblivion.
Partly because of its heft, Ducks is not a Tube-friendly novel: the unchaptered, seemingly insurmountable blocks of prose make it impossible to dip in and out on the fly. It’s not so much its size, but its unyielding to convenience culture that makes it so. This seems fitting, as Ellmann’s novel, in no uncertain terms, makes a convincing case for living differently. Perhaps the reason the novel is so audacious is because it knows it’s fighting a losing battle. As the author freely admits, ‘people don’t read much nowadays, well, not books anyway. . . they read stuff on their phones.’ Even the most square-eyed of us would be hard-pressed to scroll through a digital copy of Ducks from beginning to end on a palm-sized screen. But this is not a bad thing, not least because it keeps independent publishers like Galley Beggar Press printing boundary-pushing fiction.
Ducks demands that we take our time – or more specifically, that we take its time. Whether it’s fatbergs in London or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Ellmann calls attention to our very modern mess. Despite the urgency of its themes, Ellmann’s book requires pause, for us to sit down and read it, not as a digital entity, but in the trappings of the physical world as it collapses around us. This is perhaps the greatest irony of the novel. Indeed, it would have been a worthy winner of the Booker prize – to say nothing of the embarrassment of this year’s split award – and Ellmann, justly, has been awarded the Goldsmiths Prize for adventurous fiction this year, for something ‘genuinely novel’.
At its best, Ducks, Newburyport is a serio-comic masterwork that returns the novel to its original powers as a satirical force, which is, at turns, cheerful and annihilating. At its worst, Ellmann has written an unbearably accurate documentary of an individual’s innermost thoughts and feelings, which many readers will object to simply because of its length; or because it is so exacting a portrait that they cannot face the pores of their own skin and the blemishes of living; either way, they do so in spite of its sheer informedness about society rather than on its merits, which are manifold. Whatever its failures as a novel I suspect they are also our own.
Jack Solloway is a writer and critic living in London. He is the Online Editor for The London Magazine and former Assistant Editor of Voice Magazine. His articles have appeared in The London Magazine, the TLS and The Times.
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