Experiencing Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport

Out of all the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport had the most arresting summary: a first-person one-sentence inner-monologue spread over approximately 1,000 pages, covering every thought that runs through the Ohioan housewife speaker’s head, including worries, observations, clickbait headlines, jingles, and wordplay.

More accurately, the book is 988 pages, although that number increases to 1,030 if you include the glossary, appendices, and front matter. It’s also not just a single sentence; punctuating the stream of consciousness is another narrative about a lioness told in third-person prose with the blessed inclusion of full-stops. There are, by my count, 17 instances when the main stream pauses for the lioness’s story, each time for 1-2 pages. The pauses occur every 100 pages or so for most of the novel, the gap between pauses decreasing to as little as 10 pages towards the end. The two narratives are linked thematically and eventually the plots intersect.

I was curious to know how such a novel could work; whether a single sentence could be maintained for that length without degenerating into nonsense word soup, and whether the extreme page-length was justified.

The British edition, published by Galley Beggar Press.

Ellman does avoid word soup by using a variety of interesting techniques. The result is an artfully constructed, surprisingly easy to read, single sentence. Reading it felt like looking at a piece of abstract art (the author herself thinks of it as a type of collage): at first it only seems to be disconnected colours and markings, but as you look you begin to make out patterns, shapes, and themes.

Baking challenges – such as how to make a perfect tarte tatin, or the cost of renting a cake-tin shaped as a number – are one recurring theme. Sometimes a complete story will emerge within the myriad thoughts and observations, such as Aunt Sophia accidentally burning to death after lighting the stove, described amongst thoughts about the Amish, washing machines, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Other parts of the sentence are more diffuse:

the fact that when people question me about the past, I often have to either fudge it, fudge brownies, hot fudge sundaes at Macy’s, or change the subject, or just admit I don’t remember what everybody else remembers perfectly well, burnt toast, rusks, Pepito, the fact that with four kids there are only so many poignant moments a mom can keep track of,

Soaky soaks you clean

, fit to be tied, Central Street dime store, the fact that I remember the big sour pickles we used to buy at the store on hot days, sitting cross-legged, Hawaiian Punch, the oľ one-two, banana splits, cheerleaders in agony, group hug, live and let live, a bird in the hand

Thinking of “fudging it” makes the speaker think of fudge brownies and Macy’s, but the jingle advertising soap seems to come from nowhere. Both the word association and random interruption are things that also happen in my head – and I suspect in everyone else’s heads too – although most of the time I’m not even aware of what my brain is doing.

At other points ideas interrupt the flow of a thought that is being pursued:

the fact that the best thing about history is it’s written down, so even I can’t totally forget it, the fact that you can still distort it of course, Fox News, fake news, DON’T USE, the fact that libraries don’t have any books in them anymore, the fact that Peolia was probably the first school to put all the books in storage somewhere, the fact that the students stare at screens all day, then get jobs for life where they stare at screens all day some more

The phrase “the fact that” is used throughout. Ellman said she came up with it as a way of creating suspense: “you never know how the sentence is going to end […] it’s a weak expression that people say when they don’t have a fact to give you.” And it does feel as if we are constantly pursuing “the fact” mentioned; before one fact is fully explained the next one is introduced, each introduction to “the fact” overlapping the previous introduction. This is the fact – no, this is the fact – no, this is the fact. It’s a literary Shepard scale, seemingly building up forever without reaching a crescendo:

the fact that I took the coin purse, the fact that he went to hear her play the gamelan once in Philly, Bali, sunset, buffet, the fact that the women of Bali are the most beautiful on earth, or so they say, the fact that it really makes me sick my students didn’t love me

The bookseller Nic Bottomley spoke of this phrase as a mere replacement for full-stops. That isn’t accurate. In the above quotation, “the fact that” links disparate thoughts that would not flow together, or make grammatical sense, with full-stops. However, “the fact that” does perform some of the function of a full-stop, providing a pause to switch between different images and ideas. A reader doesn’t have to keep track of the whole long sentence because “the fact that” keeps resetting the narrative focus. As well as maintaining a heightened level of suspense, “the fact that” relieves mental strain. How can you read a 950-page sentence? Easily: you just have to read what’s between “the fact that” and then repeat that process approximately 4,000 times.

This is an easy book to read; it just takes a long time to complete it. My personal recommendation is to read the eBook on your mobile device, as that format suits the narrative form better than a thick tome. This isn’t one thing, it’s lots of little things, like tweets on a scrolling timeline except each of these “tweets” are connected by association, and flow from the previous one.

Ducks, Newburyport in paperback and on phone
Ducks, Newburyport in paperback and on phone

Every review I read discusses the length of the novel, and Ellman has expressed frustration that this aspect has taken up so much critical focus. But I do think it’s necessary to think about it, especially coming the year after Booker judges said there were too many long books in 2018 that should have been edited down. The question isn’t, “is this too long?” but more specifically, “would this have been better if it had been shorter?”

On page 645 the sentence loses all punctuation, line-breaks replacing commas so that each line consists of 2-5 words. This continues for 27 pages. Could the point not have been made in 2 pages? Well, that depends on what the “point” is. If Ellman was trying to convey a message then 2 pages could probably have done it, and the lucidity would have been praised. But I don’t think Ellman is trying to communicate a particular message; I think Ducks is an attempt to give an experience to the reader. We are in the speaker’s mind in real time, with nothing censored or cut out. It has to be long, or it would not be an authentic experience. Ideas about motherhood, working to make ends meet, Trump’s America, and the dissemination of information, emerge from the experience of living inside the speaker’s mind, but it is the experience itself that is the core part of the novel.

If you want to experience the inside of a woman’s mind, a woman who is a mother and a daughter, a cancer-survivor and a baker, a reader and a worrier, then you should read this novel.

I have just one pieces of advice: don’t lose your place because you will spend a long time trying to find it again.

Featured image credit: America Her History of the United States, Todd Monaghan, 2005

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