Ducks, Newburyport review: Navigating the exhausting beauty of Lucy Ellmann's mindscape
Reading Lucy Ellmann's 1,000-plus pages, (almost, but not quite) single sentence long Ducks, Newburyport is an experience (as one would imagine) unlike any other I've come across in recent times.
Editor's note: Up to 14 October, when the Man Booker Prize 2019 winner will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing the five books on the shortlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders.
Reading Lucy Ellmann's 1,000-plus pages, (almost, but not quite) single sentence long Ducks, Newburyport is an experience (as one would imagine) unlike any other I've come across in recent times. The sprawling book narrates the thoughts of an unnamed, middle-aged woman in Ohio as she bakes pies and contemplates everything from raising her four children to the passing of her mother, her past regrets, climate change, Donald Trump, and an incredible array of other things.
With a single sentence running over a hundred pages at times, Ellmann tests the limits of the "stream of consciousness" style. So much so, that by the end one wonders if it even qualifies as that. After all, who actually thinks like the protagonist does — in her dense, breathless and seemingly neverending way. But then again, Ducks, Newburyport is not your father's idea of a peculiar book. This one takes you places you didn't expect, for better or worse.
Once you get into a rhythm — perhaps after spraining you arm a few dozen times holding the book at different trajectories (none really work) — the book feels like a hallucinogenic trip you embarked on, but have no control over where it takes you. The hypnotic repetition of "the fact that", which Ellmann uses to introduce each new thought in the protagonist's mind (and even these are broken by the sporadic bursts of bite-sized thoughts of an ever-wandering mind) acts as "punctuation" to keep one sane.
It's true, the book is an exhausting affair and at times demands too much of a reader. But that in itself feels like an essential element of experiencing Ellmann's book in its true intended form, and dare I say right. Perhaps, part of me saying this is just justifying having put myself through it, but one firmly believes that the book can be an immensely rewarding experience many of its readers. Rewarding, and one to remember and learn from, because Ellmann is one heck of a writer.
The way the author makes the protagonist's voice in a book of this volume and magnitude feel so organic and believable is nothing short of a feat. Laced with genuine humour, the narrator's thoughts gracefully dance across the pages with their feet firmly on the ground. Right off the bat one feels at home in her expansive mindscape — a train journey through a beautiful, at times curious, landscape with no definite destination in sight. At times you might get agitated and try to work out the route and the elusive destination, but soon enough you happily give yourself up to the journey itself.
The book also comes across as an interesting study and experimentation of contemporary minds. On the one hand, the protagonist's constant and unending jumps from one thought to the next feel like someone scrolling through a Twitter feed or browsing through a thousand internet tabs, aka an ordinary relatable person; on the other, all put together, the book challenges the same modern fragmented attention spans with its volume and unapologetic style.
One of the many achievements of Ellmann with this book (and perhaps a vital one for this to work) is her capacity to hold the reader in the moment. The best moments leave you breathless as you race across pages following the twists and turns of the protagonist's mind and life, your own mind abuzz with a million thoughts you find yourself chasing but have to put down only so you can chase after the million next. It's like a scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part when our protagonists are running through the Louvre, sliding and skidding... That, but you're also checking out the artwork, trying to catch a glimpse of everything, as you are dash across.
Like Mike McCormack's Solar Bones, where a middle-aged engineer reminisces about his past life events whilst sitting at his kitchen table, the whole book taking place in the course of an hour and written in a single unbroken sentence, Ducks, Newburyport also at times feels like a celebration of the ordinary. The way Ellmann discusses and describes everything "life", the everyday triumphs and tribulation, the small joys and heartbreaks, letting go and not letting go, the sense of something ominous lurking in the most mundane things, is extraordinary.
If I had to sum up the experience, Ducks, Newburyport feels like one of those difficult video games you put down in exhausting and frustration, only to immediately catch yourself thinking about it the moment you do so. And in no time at all, you're back for more. Because deep inside you know it has taken over your mind, and you love it.
PS — I hope it wins the big prize.