James Joyce wrote Ulysses, he suggested, as a way of making the novel safe for women and children. He meant that the stream-of-consciousness technique he developed, with its concentration on interior psychological states and mundane domestic matters, was a Modernist alternative to the military-imperial Realism of the era’s English writers, chief among them Rudyard Kipling.
Still, the literary Modernism espoused by Joyce (and figures such as Pound, Beckett, Eliot and Faulkner) remained wedded to an idea of the artist as a heroically masculine figure. The ordinary Dublin wanderings of Ulysses echoed Homeric myth, after all.
One of the more out-there books to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize in recent years, Ducks, Newburyport – by American-born, Scotland-based author Lucy Ellmann, who also happens to be the daughter of James Joyce’s great biographer, Richard Ellmann – consists of eight sentences without paragraph breaks unfolding over 998 pages (1030 with glossary and appendices). Its marketing and even its design in some instances consciously echo Joyce’s big book.
But there are differences. Ellmann’s novel is not heroic, or even mock-heroic. It has at its centre a former college teacher and cancer survivor who is now a suburban mother of four in Ohio. The novel’s time frame spans a single morning spent preparing cinnamon rolls.
Admittedly, Ducks, Newburyport contains Joycean multitudes. It works feminine experience in with the long, man-manufactured arc of American history. Each page is stuffed with pop-culture references and ecological factoids, contemporary politics and literary references, stray lines of music and half-remembered recipes.
If the novel can feel like a colossal hold-all for one clever, thoughtful, fretful, sad, funny editorialising consciousness, what makes it gel is a sense of wounding. Our narrator mourns the loss of a beloved mother. She laments her nation’s decline from those ideals on which it was ostensibly founded. She flinches from the looming ecological catastrophe her young children will inherit.
She expands across the pages, an unnamed Everywoman: inveterately multitasking, porous to the world, fiercely protective yet unashamedly vulnerable. And Ellmann’s stylistic achievement here is to weave a net of words that honours her narrator’s unique yet universal self.
As with many contemporary fictions, an awareness of the internet and the revolution it brought is crucial to the novel’s structure and style. You could say that Ducks, Newburyport represents the struggle between a mind desperate for the Shaker simplicity of a vanished America – the Amish come up a lot – and the maelstrom of information with which contemporary media crowds our attention. Our current situation is so hectic that it is, as author Marilynne Robinson put it, “nearly sublime: a sort of cerebral whiteout”.
The challenge for readers of Ellmann’s book, then, is to fight their way through blizzards of information, in search of glimpses of something rare – let’s call it wisdom. Take this passage, which initially refers to – who else? – Trump:
“Step away, nothing to see here,” the fact that he’s already spent millions just flying around, from the White House to his other homes, with his whole entourage, Melania, the fact that he is the “zero,” but I shouldn’t say that … but he is a zero, such a, a phony-baloney, not nice, not smart, the fact that, dear me, getting angry doesn’t help anything, the fact that Woodrow Wilson’s now reflecting the sun right in my eye but I can’t do anything about it until I finish rolling out this cinnamon dough, dust particles in the air, Chock Full o’ Nuts, stereoscopic vision …
Such prose has its surreal pleasures. It can devolve into 40-page lists or arc up with scabrous wit. Little arpeggios of wordplay keep the reader constantly guessing about what comes next, while those inevitable facts pile up into a babel of pure, thought-defying nonsense.For readers who endure, the most significant passages are slipped in almost as asides:
… you’d think that, with four kids, you could just divide your love up between them, in quarters, so if you lost one it wouldn’t be so bad, safety in numbers, but instead the love gets quadrupled, leaving you with four times the anxiety, four times the sense of helplessness, four times the afterschool activities …
In moments such as these, readers feel the real temperature of the narrative, cold water beneath the warm surface of a lake.
For all its old-fashioned “gee-wow” locutions, its constitutional politeness and liberal bias, there is a wildness at work in Ducks, Newburyport, something borne out by a counternarrative that appears at points throughout. This is the second-person account of a mountain lioness who is raising cubs while making a circular journey from Appalachia to Alligator Mound in Ohio. In these pages, the white noise of the present is muted, up to a point. They tell of a wild animal, alert to nothing but the need for survival and care of her young. Like one of Marianne Moore’s mid-century creature poems, these sections do not explicitly gesture towards human sense, or even link with the parent narrative until the novel’s conclusion. Rather, the lioness becomes a kind of blazon for the narrator – standing for some essence buried beneath human, and specifically feminine, experience.
Contrast that with Ulysses and its Homeric myth, which is a project of a hyper-masculine culture – one that underpinned “civilisation” in the West, shaped as that was by ruthless colonisation, the creation and maintenance of divisions based on class and economic status, and the exploitation of the natural world to human appetite. Looked at this way, it seems foolish to continue linking these texts, written a century apart. For all the breakthroughs that attended Ulysses’ publication – and all the joy it has given to generations of readers since – it is Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport that is truly designed to make culture safe for women and children.
Text, 1040pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 12, 2019 as "Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport".
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