US-born and Edinburgh-based author Lucy Ellmann’s seventh novel, Ducks, Newburyport, which won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, is a compendium of an Ohio woman’s long-winded, encyclopaedic monologues about countless things – motherhood and domesticity, family and relationships, past and future, life and literature, ecology and environmental degradation, disease and death – in virtually a single sentence.
In the 430,000-word novel, which runs to 1,034 pages, Ellmann’s unnamed narrator, a housewife, tells her story, and that of the contemporary Midwestern America – from the shape of Ohio to the shape of the world’s oldest democracy hurtling towards all sorts of “disasters”, including political, cultural, ethical and ecological – ecstatically and breathlessly. The novel heaves with the ebbs and flows of life as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged woman, who is endeavouring to bridge the gaps between reality and the “torrent of meaningless information” – on everything under the sun, including the “future of our children, the horrors of the Trump era and the deplorable health debts – that is the United States of America”, as the publishers have described the book, also terming it as a “scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster… [there is] a heresy, a wonder – and a revolution in the novel.”
Reading Ducks, Newburyport is like perambulating through a seemingly unending alley, with several turns at every step, and not a seat in sight for you to rest even when you sometimes desperately need it: Ellmann’s narrator keeps jumping from one train of thought to another, chronicling the varying degrees of her hopes and hopelessness, compelling you to be with her every moment through her discursive discourse. During her relentless, untrammelled narration, you learn about the narrator’s kaleidoscope of thoughts – happy and sad – her pet peeves and her constant worries about the future, both of her children and the country. The narrator is resolved to commit to paper everything that strikes her mind lest her fickle memory betray her, leaving some chain of thoughts to go unrecorded, leaving gaps in the story of her life.
Ducks, Newburyport follows a narrative that’s random and disjointed, but once you have managed to wade through the novel, some facts dawn on you: The fact that nothing is random, the fact that everything is connected, the fact that sometimes disjointed thoughts can cohere, too, the fact that a novel can contain multitudes in an astounding way, and, finally, the fact that what Ellmann, 62, has achieved is a novel of breathtaking beauty.
“Home is the nicest word there is,” wrote Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, an American writer known for the Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books. Ellmann’s narrator reads Wilder to her children in the novel. “It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all,” Wilder had written. Ducks, Newburyport shows us just how those sweet, simple things can define who we are and lend certain certitude to our otherwise fragile, uncertain lives.
The Ohio housewife, whose parents died rather young, lives with her husband Leo, a saint, scientist, and an authority on bridges, and their three younger children – Ben, Gillian and Jake. There is also another daughter, Stacy, from a previous marriage. Her mother, who was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, had almost drowned there as a small child, trying to chase ducks. As she looks at her life, the narrator finds herself engulfed in a barrage of facts that crowd her mind, and the pages of this novel. At some point, the narrator wonders: “What is with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff, since I know it already, the fact that I knew it all before I said it to myself…, because I’M ME, Kraft Miracle Whip, Medi-Wise Pharmacy, the fact that it seems kind of unnecessary for everybody to be talking to themselves all day long…”
In the course of these outpourings, she acquaints herself with another fact: “... the fact that I just realised that when this monologue in my head stops, I’ll be dead, or at least totally unconscious, like a vegetable or something, the fact that there are seven and a half billion people in the world, so there must be seven and a half billion of these internal monologues going on, apart from all the unconscious people, that’s seven and a half billion people worrying about their kids, or their moms, or both, as well as taxes and window sills and medical bills...” Woven into these mundane facts are also nuggets of existential truths, like “the fact that we must all be born happy, then learn to be sadder.”
In an interview, Ellmann said that the narrator of her novel serves as a “representative for all consciousnesses”. The author of six other novels, she added: “She has a terrible memory. So she isn’t remembering all these things at once. They flicker by and are gone. By writing them down though, she amasses a huge laundry pile of what forms her consciousness.”
Through her extensive monologue, says Ellmann, she wanted to encapsulate the whole of the world that her narrator had to contend with – “a world that depresses, delights, offends and mystifies her”. Reading the novel, it seems as if there were several dots in the universe that the narrator was trying to connect on her quest to find meaning in the everydayness of life.
At its core, Ducks, Newburyport is about two embattled mothers – the human narrator and a cougar lioness, whose story is sprinkled through the novel, switching from the first-person narrative to short descriptions about the lioness careening through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, along with her three newborn cubs. The novel opens with a short description, told in third person, about the lioness for whom “all of life is really recoil and leap, leap and recoil.”
“The animal subplot is a genuine attempt to imagine what it’s like to be a mountain lion. With extinctions on the rise, and all the horrors perpetrated in zoos, factory farms, slaughterhouses, and on hunting trips, the mechanisation of animal murder, I think we need to look at the way we interact with animals,” said Ellmann, adding that the embattled mothers in the novel are at the “mercy” of a society which awards them “little” status. “If you were free, brave, and alone, what kind of a mother would you make? A great one. That’s what the lioness is,” said Ellmann. Excerpts from the interview:
Ducks, Newburyport is an outstanding work of masterful wordplay. The story leaps at us in fragments and leaves us with a lot of reflections on contemporary lives, and a lesson in writing breathtaking prose. Tell us about choosing the form and the freedom it allowed you to hover over a wide range of “facts” that define your protagonist’s life.
I like your mention of freedom. As a writer, you are free to do what you want in your own book. It’s a little universe of your own making. One thing that really freed me up in writing this novel was something the novelist Joseph McElroy said once in an essay, where he hailed readers’ thirst for “experience”. I took this to mean a thirst for almost anything fictional to occur. This means that having a flat tire, or getting your teeth cleaned, can be as rich a subject as being a wheeler-dealer on Wall Street. The reader can forgive a lot, as long as things somehow keep moving along.
In Thomas Bernhard’s novels, very little changes outwardly, the movement is all within the narrator’s mind. My book, too, is an approximation of what goes on in a person’s head, some of it ephemeral: memory, associations, idiosyncrasies and bugbears. I wanted to encapsulate the whole of the world that this woman has to contend with, a world that depresses, delights, offends and mystifies her.
The phrase “the fact that” was my starting point. I liked the finality of it. I didn’t know this refrain would eventually carry a thousand-page novel, but it quickly formed a useful scaffold for my one snaking sentence. It’s one sentence because I don’t think one’s inner thoughts are really punctuated much, and certainly not with full stops.
Your unnamed narrator, a mother of four living in Ohio, has tremendous powers of observation that lend the novel much of its heft. How did you go about developing her voice, infusing it with her general peeves and deep dissatisfaction with the state of the wider world?
Novel writing is ventriloquism of a sort. I wanted to write about someone imbued with good intentions but also easily distracted by the tsunami of information she’s pounded with day by day. She lives in America, so she’s subject to TV news and phatic utterance and vocal fry and cardboard clichés. It’s a forlorn greedy culture.
Her main fault is she’s too nice. She wants to get along with everybody, if only so that they’ll leave her in peace. It’s neither a very honest nor comfortable position to be in. In a society set on violence and ignorance, her only strategy is to be polite. To bake pies, ferry her children around, make hot chocolate and avoid cuss words.
The novel stands out for its beautiful evocation of the everyday. Early in the novel, the narrator, for instance, says that her life was all “shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling, frilling, fooling, cooling, heating, boiling, broiling, frying, and macrophages.” Through the descriptions of the empty, vacuous trivia of contemporary life, did you want the novel to be about the extraordinariness of the ordinary?
I have no contempt for the ordinary. People travel the world in search of exotic sights, but there are plenty in your own backyard. And people shouldn’t travel – there’s a climate crisis! Stay home and look at your own caterpillars.
One of the ways of keeping women down has been the disparagement of the domestic scene. Take a closer look and you find it populated by all the women left out of the history books. Not just them, but every baby who ever grew into someone famous or infamous. Domesticity teems with life, creativity, practicality, energy, fun, fury and passion. It’s not vacuous, it’s real.
With its awe-inspiring scale, it is quite an ambitious novel that seems to weave in both America’s history and its not-too bright present. Did you, at any time, think of writing the next Great American Novel, like Twain, Roth, Franzen or Fitzgerald?
Nope. I’ve never known what that term means. I suspect that, like many other male goals, it means nothing.
The novel, told in first person, frequently, albeit briefly, switches to another narrative style: at intervals, during the protagonist’s monologue, there is the narration of an animal fable, about a mountain lioness searching for her cubs. What purpose do you think this subplot serves? What is the quest of the lioness symbolic of? Does it have parallels with the narrator’s life?
I don’t see it as a fable, nor consciously symbolic. I hate symbolism – it seems cheap. The parallels are obvious: both the mountain lion and the human narrator are embattled mothers, at the mercy of a society which awards them little status. If you were free, brave, and alone, what kind of a mother would you make? A great one. That’s what the lioness is.
The animal subplot is a genuine attempt to imagine what it’s like to be a mountain lion. Wilderness exists only in pockets now, and the sight of wild animals is an oddity. With extinctions on the rise, and all the horrors perpetrated in zoos, factory farms, slaughterhouses, and on hunting trips, the mechanisation of animal murder, I think we need to look at the way we interact with animals. I’m not even all that happy about the way pets are treated. Depressed dogs being dragged around. Tropical fish in tiny tanks. Declawed cats who never get outside. We’re power freaks. How would we like to be neutered?
Does your novel reflect your own disillusionment with America and Trump’s wild and dangerous posturing?
Despair fuelled the book. Listening to Trump, looking at him, or hearing about him, has become a form of mass torture. I tried to keep his actual name out of it as much as possible. I think it appears about ninety times, but in a novel of 430,000 words, that’s not too bad. But he can’t be completely ignored – that would be collusion.
Your narrator remembers everything. Her mind has the elasticity of a gigantic rubber band, as a reviewer, Charles R Larson, points out. Her ramblings constantly juxtapose family life and movie plots, song lyrics and novels, especially Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. There are also sprinklings from, and nods to, another set of writers like Anne Frank, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Masters & Johnson, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare and John Brown. What did you wish to achieve by conceiving her as someone with an encyclopedic memory, the “historian of her own life?”
The point was to look at all the stuff that’s in all of us. That’s partly why the book is so long. People are complex. How about looking at what makes us?
The narrator of my novel serves as a representative for all consciousnesses. She has a terrible memory actually, a failing I share with her. So, she isn’t remembering all these things at once. They flicker by and are gone. By writing them down though, you can amass a huge laundry pile of what forms her consciousness.
The lion, too, has a consciousness. She has thought patterns, memories, fantasies, fears, yearnings, and an immense will. I think her mind is sort of enviable actually, compared to minds full of recipes and discounts and recycling dilemmas and radioactivity and grouting and light bulbs and five dollar bills. Cartoonists draw ideas as lightbulbs, but I’d rather think about something loftier. The lion’s thoughts are often quite lofty.
Your narrator is buffeted by tragedies of her own – a bout of cancer she recovered from, the death of her mother – and yet her dreams are full of animals she cannot save, people she cannot protect. How important was it for you to endow her with empathy?
I didn’t want to write about a gun-toting, MAGA-bonneted white supremacist. I couldn’t stomach a whole novel about someone like that. So I got myself a heroine who could react to the horrors of the USA without being a direct cause of them. The trouble with her is, she doesn’t do anything about the things that disturb her. She is in the early stages of even recognising what those things are. I think her obstreperous teenage daughter is more inclined to take action. The energy and outrage of young women is a much-needed force in the world.
Shireen Quadri is a marketing and communications professional who has worked with several publishing houses. She is founder and publisher, The Punch Magazine. She is Project Coordinator with Mathrubhumi Festival Of Letters. On Twitter and Instagram, her handle is @shireenquadri.
A version of this article first appeared on The Punch Magazine.