When I ordered Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, I knew nothing about the book, other than that it had been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. So when it arrived I found myself looking around to see where the Candid Camera people were hiding. It’s a surprisingly large book. A genuinely long read. I am no marathon runner, but I think I experienced what is known as ‘the wall’ at about page 200, thankfully in the literary rather than athletic sense. I pushed on though, and the reward was substantial. Stamina and perseverance issues aside, this is without a doubt one of the most engrossing and insightful books I’ve ever read. Let me explain.
Anyone who has stopped for even the briefest moment and become aware of the cacophony of thoughts going on in their head throughout the day, whether through deliberate mindfulness practice or just from plain exasperation, will immediately recognise the style of Ducks, Newburyport.
Apart from a short story – written in what I guess should be called ‘normal’ prose and chopped into small chapters which appear for a page or two every now and then – the entire book consists of one long sentence expressing the main character’s inner mental life as it tumbles and falls over itself, endlessly jumping from one thought or emotion to the next in an uncontrollable flow of associative interjections triggered by rhymes, syntax, meaning, subject matter, memories, snippets of dreams, movies, songs and so on. In the same way the human mind constantly darts from thought to thought, unconcerned by whether or not our conscious selves like what it brings up. What the outside world sees and hears from us (and what we see and hear from people around us) is actually just the tip of this metaphorical mental iceberg, those manifestations of our inner life that we think are acceptable, useful or just coherent enough to let out. What Ms Ellmann attempts to write is like a verbatim transcription of this mental process. I say attempts, because ultimately it is an impossible task, but the result is nevertheless breathtaking.
It’s almost impossible to select an excerpt from the book, because everything is interconnected with all sorts of elements of the preceding narrative, but here’s a little taster from page 296, when the main character has to use her children’s sink as the other sink is still out of use because the plumber, Arnie, hasn’t been round yet:
…the fact that Arnie doesn’t like us anymore, the fact that we were too slow to send the check last time, the fact that I didn’t mean to be slow on it, the fact that his bill just got buried under papers and I forgot about it, temporarily, garage door salesman, the fact that he had to send us a reminder, that fact that he didn’t have to but he did, two weeks later, the fact that it was all a little embarrassing, and now he doesn’t respond to phone messages, so I guess we’re in the doghouse, and he’s the best plumber around, that fact that, also, I always liked his name, because you remember it, Arnie Tulip, ♫ Tiptoe through the tulips ♫, the fact that it should be “tiptoe around the Tulip” given Arnie’s touchiness, Arnie, Arnold, My Dog Tulip, the fact that he has a brother called Jerry Tulip, who does carpentry, tulips trees, dceaglecam, the fact that maybe what we need to look for is another plumber with a memorable name like that, the fact that surely there must be one, the fact that maybe they should study this at plumbing school, the fact that they shouldn’t graduate without a good catchy name like Forget-Me-Not, Dogwood, Rose, rose madder, While Titian was mixing rose madder….
Oh, sure, there’s also a story. And it’s worth sticking around for, too. However, at least for me, the wonder of this book is the way Ms Ellmann manages to give the reader intimate access into the subjective experience of the main character, a harried mother of four who spends her days baking pies for a living and worrying about everything.
Her concerns are the same things that bother so many of us confused moderns: she feel impotent in the face of environmental crises, completely unable to make sense of contradictory information about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, she’s baffled and horrified by the perennial phenomenon of violent men, she despairs at the apparent inevitability of corruption in politics and big business… but also the little stuff: social faux pas she committed and can’t get over, unpleasant or intimidating people she has to deal with for work, her need for intimacy with her husband which remains unsatisfied due to them having four young kids around all the time, how deeply she misses her mum who died when she was still a child, and on and on it goes.
This may make Ducks, Newburyport sound like hard graft, but believe me, the book is also hilarious and profound. I regularly had to put the book down because I couldn’t stop laughing. Other times, pithy little articulations of what really goes through one’s mind in various everyday situations made me put down the book and reflect. And this is what I love about great literature, when it verbalises, brings into consciousness, something you’ve always known intuitively but have never been able to accurately put your finger on.
It's what psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett calls ‘granularity’ in her groundbreaking book How Emotions Are Made. An attentive, detailed, highly specific description of one’s emotional experience which, once named, suddenly becomes less overwhelming or confusing, a thing one can relate to with intention. A phenomenon you can now recognise and contend with more readily next time it arises.
If you’re waiting for some deep and meaningful analysis of what this book is actually about, I politely refer you to Susan Sontag’s seminal 1961 essay ‘Against Interpretation’ in which she argues for the immediate, unmediated experience of art and against the ‘revenge of the intellect’ that is the interpretation of art. She rejects the demand, implicit in interpretation, that art justify itself. She exposes as a manifestation of insecurity the need to impose on art something other than what it is, something it actually is, what it symbolises or the message – God forbid – it is trying to convey. No, Ducks, Newburyport is a book to savour first-hand, the same way that the only way to know what it feels like to be in the water is to get in the water.
This is a book to experience rather than interpret. It touches the reader at a very primal level. I think any attribution of intent to Ms Ellmann – what cultural, political, sociological, psychological point she is actually trying to make – does injustice to a monumental work of deeply intuitive writing. I would highly recommend strapping on your swimming goggles and diving in the deep end.