Most of “Ducks, Newburyport” is only one sentence. However, fans of brevity will be disappointed – the work is more than 1,000 pages long.
Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 novel is an encyclopedic stream-of-conscious narrative inside the head of a middle-aged married mother of four living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. The unnamed narrator is an adjunct history professor from the fictional Peolia College. Since she has been in remission from cancer she has been on leave from her job.
Throughout “Ducks, Newburyport,” the narrator’s mind takes her to many places. As she puts it: “The fact that as an historian of my own life, I’m just going on hunches most of the time, running on empty, stumbling over sand dunes, hunted to the point of distinction.”
These hunches take her from the mundane to the catastrophic: the progress of her baking; her conversations with her husband Leo; her worries and hope for her kids; her vexatious time teaching at Peolia; economic downturns; environmental pollution; climate change; nature shows; Donald Trump’s presidency; gun control; her beloved mother who died of cancer; the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder; the seedy and unspoken underbelly of American history; classic movies from America’s Golden Era, just to name a few.
The narrative is marked by paired associations and wordplay. To take one example at random: “I hate parties, as guest or host, cocktail umbrellas, pointy paper hats, Groucho Marx, high heels, olives, guacamole, the fact that I don’t know why anybody likes them.” This attempt to give an accurate account of a mental process at work and then crystallize it through the written word is similar to James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – another experimental, ambitious work that tried to capture the zeitgeist of a specific time and place. Each text takes a normal person doing unremarkable things in the space of a day as its ostensible subject. Each takes as its real subject something much grander than the protagonist – for “Ulysses” it’s Ireland and for “Ducks, Newburyport” it’s America.
But Joyce’s classic novel is, believe it or not, much shorter. “Ulysses” probably has half the word count of “Ducks, Newburyport,” and the latter could definitely be much shorter while not sacrificing anything. Most readers will rightly be put off by the length of the book, but reading it gives off something of a hypnotic effect if you’re not thinking of how many pages you still have to read. And it demands less of the reader than “Ulysses.” You won’t be asking yourself any who-what-when-where questions.
“Duck Newburyport” pretty much takes you inside the ride of a character’s head, and the recursive nature of her thoughts prevents the reader asking what exactly is going on. Don’t worry, she’ll tell you.