Book Review: “Ducks, Newburyport,” by Lucy Ellman

Ducks, Newburyport is a new novel both celebrated and feared for its audacity: a single stream-of-consciousness sentence nearly one thousand pages long, paused but not interrupted by concisely-written chapters of a parallel narrative that follows a mother puma’s search for her missing cubs. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and many who have actually read it feel it should have won.

And though you’d think it to be the sort of book that is more commented on than read, it is being read: thirty-five branches of the Los Angeles Public Library presently stock the print edition, and it is checked out of thirty-four of them. There are also, at the time of this writing, 57 patrons in line for a chance at 24 e-book copies. I myself had to wait six weeks to hold the impressive bulk of the paperback in my hands. And it was worth it.

Although the dust jacket claims that Joyce’s “Ulysses has nothing on this,” that’s not true; Ulysses is a far more rigorously-structured work, and is a third-person narration in any case. Also, one can still read Ulysses a hundred years after its debut, despite some topical references that are now thoroughly obscure; Ducks is far more of the moment, and may be only semi-comprehensible to readers in 2119.

At least one can hope that it will be incomprehensible—not out of any spite for the references to pop, teen, and commercial culture that spot the tale much in the way that the raisins the narrator abhors spot other bakers’ cinnamon rolls. But because the main themes of Ducks are actually quite harrowing. Here’s a partial list:

  • Violence, of men against women (and, often, children)
  • Violence, of white cops against blacks
  • Violence, of humans against animals
  • Violence, of culture against nature
  • The economic violence of medical debt
  • The social violence of provincial suburban neighbors against outsiders
  • Foaming-at-the-mouth gun culture
  • Fear, engendered by the list items above
  • And, in the midst of all that, parenting, especially mother-daughter bonding—or the lack thereof

There are also snippets when the narrator focuses instead on the natural beauty outside her window, on the love of her second husband, on the clever graces of her younger children… but she spends more time wondering how she failed her mother, who was crippled in a botched operation and then died in her forties of cancer; or how she failed her oldest daughter, born of the affair that led to her first marriage to what turned out to be a deadbeat dad. It is a deep and cogent exploration of US culture and its insecurities and blind spots—in particular, Midwestern US culture. (The novel is set in central Ohio, nexus of the industrial Midwest, and a region ravaged by decades of economic decline.)

This may sound grim, but it is not: the narrator, who is never named, is kind of a ditz and often internally frantic, but she is also endearing, truly caring, and clever in an understated way. Ducks has an easy flow despite its radical structure and great length, and the narrator’s observations are often hilarious. As an example, here is a musing she indulges in after being trapped in a shopping mall by an overflowing river:

“[A]t least everybody seemed to agree that you can’t be expected to ford a river in full flood with a load of pies on your head, dodging flaming houses as they float by, just to fulfil catering commitments.”

In context, it makes perfect and comical sense. And the book is full of such moments.

Pie-making, you must have heard, comprises a major portion of the narrator’s time. And one might reasonably ask, Why does she make so many pies? This may be puzzling to readers in Canada or Europe, but: she sells them to nearby cafés to help pay off the debt incurred by her cancer treatment. Her husband is a professor working two jobs, and working two professional jobs does not bring in enough.

This situation is not uncommon in the place that calls itself America. It may only rarely involve pies, but it always imposes stresses that often result in further medical conditions.

The other protagonist, the female mountain lion, is magnificent, and most decidedly does not make pies. Although the parallels and contrasts between the two mothers are sometimes a bit facile, overall they work beautifully. Both the plots (yes, both stories have plots) reflect each other and eventually intersect; the lion’s ends with an unexpected act of kindness, the narrator’s with an even more unexpected act of courage.

Conceptually, Ducks explores the concept of “monkey mind” that Zen Buddhist thought applies to Western habits of verbal analysis as embodied in the primary narrative, and contrasts it with the unsentimentalized purity of thought of the puma. The puma’s chapter’s are written in a spare, Hemingway-like style absolutely devoid of anthropomorphism, yet manage effectively to comment on the human condition from outside of it entirely. What could have been hokey is instead deeply resonant. This choice was perhaps more audacious than the single-sentence format of the main narrative. I salute Ellman’s courage, capability, and grace in pulling it off.

So: Ducks is a story–is two stories–of love and persistence nested in violence, loss, environmental degradation, family strife, and deeply-rooted insecurities of nearly every variety….

Perhaps in a hundred years these settings and themes will be as far outside of general experience as the whaling ambience of Moby-Dick, which we continue to read today. Melville’s work is still relevant, though not topical; I fear that Ellman’s work will be both topical and relevant a century from now. Whether it is or not, it will remain a beautiful, compassionate novel, full of wit and worry, and one of the great reads of the genre.

And it ends with what may be the finest closing line in all of literature. I don’t say that lightly. Read through Ducks, Newburyport, and you’ll find out why. Eventually.

Rick Risemberg

2 Comments

  1. What an excellent review, as usual…has both why you might want and might not want to read it or even try to read it….appreciate your reviews so much,

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