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Review: Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport puts you in the home, head, and heart of a woman whose name you never learn. She comports herself with the familiarity of a friend or family member. You’ll hear recipes, rants about Donald Trump, “Open Carry guy” used as a slur, reports about a lioness separated from her cubs swimming through riverrun America, and 

“the fact that when the mountain lion, or maybe some other mountain lion, how do we know, was spotted near Lincoln Park Zoo a few weeks ago, they didn’t know if it had escaped from the zoo, or was some interloper from the wilderness, Chicago attics, the fact that then it just disappeared, the fact that they never did catch that one, so then people got paranoid and started seeing lions all over Chicago, cougars, panthers, whatever, loping around, sheesh, the fact that people said they saw it on Michigan Avenue and in Chinatown, the fact that maybe it’s got a taste for pot stickers and roast duck, Dr. DeBoer, the Wesley Memorial Hospital, the fact that the gun crime rate in Chicago doubled because the lion spooked everybody, and they’re all so heavily armed, the fact that the number of fatalities was worse than the Fourth of July, the fact that lions were reported in Winnetka and Evanston too, and in Milwaukee, the fact that that lion sure gets around, if it is just one, the fact that there have been sightings just about everywhere in the Northeast of Ohio now too, the fact that maybe it’s some kind of national hysteria, brought on by Trump weariness, the fact that if we’re not careful he’ll declare a National Emergency, Emma and Mr. Knightley, Colin Firth, Prince Charles talking to plants, David Attenborough, the fact that Trump’s made no comment on the cougar at all so far, except some crack about the “lion Dems,” the fact that he probably thinks the Democrats released this lion on purpose, the fact that the police are going berserk, heading in all directions and shooting anything on four legs, the fact that even a little red wagon, that rolled out from behind a bush at the wrong moment, got riddled with bullet holes, “Grrrreat!”, the fact that it’s getting so it’s not safe for kids to be outside because of the cops, never mind the lion…” (582-83).

Dotted “i”s and Crossed “t”s

In case you don’t notice you can’t get a word in edgewise in this freewheeling conversation you will when you are made a helpless witness to an attempted assault on your interlocutor—and her daughter who saves the day. The attack perpetrated by a horny working-class man who supports the death penalty, Trump supporter[?], Ronny the chicken feed guy, is the singular moment where event and action elements one expects in a novel are offered the reader like a mollifying gesture acknowledging the importance of narrative closure. Besides providing a corporeal gestalt of why the narrator might be justified in thinking people who support the death penalty tend to be gun-owning creeps and potential sex offenders it also reestablishes the narrative distance between the talking author and the listening reader who cannot talk back. Just because you’re getting a candid view of the narrator’s inner world without the filters of polite conversation or a sanitising literary register doesn’t mean there isn’t a veil between the narrated world and the world narrated to.

The deliberate avoidance of formality, manner, or surface level literariness, of the narrator’s confession is also aporetically a manner, a formal comportment, and substantive gesture. We are privy to her dreams involving Ronny where he suggestively and expertly eats drippy fruit, but we never know if she’s had a piss while she’s been talking to herself and at us. In a Murakami novel typically blending fantastic elements with realism the reader would be inundated by piss if every instance of micturition described by the narrator were a drop. The unconscious of the narrator edits the events of the day into a communicable sequence of gists. But because the unconscious is structured by language every gist betrays the organising principle of the narrator’s unwitting self-presentation. It makes sense for the mountain lioness to pass urine and leave scat both as metabolic unburdening and as signal for a lion who’s onto her as she sojourns through the narrative landscape of Ducks, Newburyport. This is lion nature. It also makes sense for the narrator of this work to have a 1030-page conversation without taking a bathroom break; only, as a signal that there is artifice governing the disclosure of what is orchestrated to appear as an organic, fleshly, spontaneous revelation. 

If the Murakamian narrative personality takes you into the bathroom and subjects you to their tinkling against the porcelain, the Ellmannian narrator boasts stolen candour by pointing out Laura Ingalls Wilder is so uptight she doesn’t talk about using the toilet or outhouse; her sensitivity about the billions of chickens slaughtered every year; how she never fails to euphemise buttocks as “sit-me-down-upon[s]” and items of inner wear as “me-oh-mys.” Self-presentation to the self here already is compromised by a spectating self that anticipates the gaze of others. If the conceit of the narrative world assumes there is no spectator to the revealed inner life but the narrator herself then the euphemisms protect no one but herself. But having identified the offending thought it is always already too late to protect herself from the brute fact exercising her rhetorical coping strategy. So, it must be that the spectating self has already dirempted itself into an other, an interlocutor who deserves consideration and can still be spared the second hand embarrassment of her bodily dispositions, functions, and needs. The narrator is unselfconscious until she is not and there is no apology for relaxing the free-associative strictures advertised in the run-on sentence which opens the novel proper after a short prologue introducing the lion we follow far into the book. 

Free From Free Form

Firstly, note that the book is not a single run-on sentence as widely and incorrectly reported. The digressive, paratactical development of themes as they enjoy their fleeting moment in a roving attentional focus afforded by a few world-encapsulating run-on sentences invite comparison to Joyce. But this is a different sort of creative project. It doesn’t have the ambition to allegorise all instances of the story form in its various guises; it doesn’t try to rhyme plot points with myths, legends, or history. Its narrative architecture is in service to exploration of a more physically constrained individuality. The range of her free associative imagination is conditioned by her environing circumstances, by her being who she is. Someone coping with grief over loss of her mother, cancer recovery and the financial insecurity imposed by a change in career in midlife. The freedom of her narrative from the demand for progress from a start through a middle and to an end, the freedom of her sentence structure, is the freedom of the lioness to act in accord with lion nature. Unlike Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake that are epics exploring the suprapersonal  dimensions of the human condition, Ducks, Newburyport is a rap song revelling in the subpersonal dimension of existence from within the first-person view of a Ohion woman who was once a lecturer at Peolia but now bakes for a living. If as the quote from Cosmopolitan says Ulysses has nothing on Ducks, Newburyport it is only because it doesn’t demand anything like the Promethean readerly effort or offer a reward anywhere near as consequential as fire. Although this might seem like a formal weakness in a book touted as Joycean, or a work of stream of consciousness, or even as free writing, this is at least a contributory factor to its success. 

While readers expecting a formally recondite work of stream-of-consciousness writing will be dismayed that there is an obvious linear continuity in the life described by the narrator —betraying the rather limited play of randomness allowed into the work—readers expecting a traditional plot driven novel will find themselves enjoying what is actually rather amorphous material from that vantage point. The trick that makes it work of course is that the amorphous material defies all expectations and coheres as though there were indeed a sequence of discrete events leading to a denouement that could’ve been anticipated by readers picking up all the clues baked into the chatter of previously reported events. This is achieved by ebbs and flows in narrative energy communicated through the varying density of character-event interactions reported in an ongoing passage. The plot which some reviewers think is there but is so deeply hidden to be accessible only to 2% of readers who really get it is really threadbare. The mysterious and happy thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter. Ellmann’s novel demonstrates that it doesn’t matter if you really have nothing to say if you say it really, really well. For a novel that demonstrates it is possible to succeed in say a lot even while saying it exceedingly well see Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid.

Reader’s anxieties about her partner Leo’s fidelity are ratcheted up and not so much resolved as sublimated by recourse to a segue into the goings-on in the life of the mountain lion introduced on the first page. The comforting and predictable rhythms of quotidian life are cyphered into passages laden with all manner of baked goods that enter the narrative strand both as aliment and free associative material that can do duty as words that rhyme with non-culinary words. This play of signs—typically a short-hand for narrative interiority—brings the idiosyncratic interior and the impersonal exterior worlds into a tenuous but complementary contact. A contact that falls short of the sedate communion of interior and exterior that works as the backdrop for the plot in a work of realist and commercial literary fiction, but which is sufficient for the reader to experience closure when the moment of highest energy is articulated by characters in the novel doing things to each other in ways that define their destinies. 

The literary game of pretending this is not a book of that sort is dropped in the final sections when Ronny who has failed to charm the narrator so far has resolved to harm her instead. Events take on a discreteness which allows a temporal sequence to be discernible. She can’t be rescued by her quick-thinking daughter, who knocks the gun out of the assailant’s hands, before he shows up as a threat to them after all. With this legible peak in intensity where three well established characters do things to each other and exit the scene with indelible memories engineers in the reader a sense that all the foregoing material must’ve been similarly legible, sequential, coherent. It too must’ve involved the mutually consequential actions of characters on each other. Action we must’ve missed because we were distracted by passing gestures in the narrator’s soliloquy, or because appropriated by her consciousness we’d forgotten it was a soliloquy rather than a series of thoughts that’d just popped up inchoate in our heads. Even if we are not fooled we might be forgiving for having been entertained.


Lucy Ellmann (2019) Ducks, Newburyport. Galley Beggar Press.

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