Offers a genuine and humorous grappling with the contemporary American moment and the effects it has on the relationships between people and their families, their neighbors, their government, their environment and themselves.
One thousand pages is a difficult length to justify for any novel, let alone one that is built almost entirely out of one winding sentence. While Lucy Ellmann’s eighth novel Ducks, Newburyport might not necessarily require all 1000 pages to showcase all the different patterns and ideas within, it is a novel that, through a hypnotic list of internal and national anxieties, is worthy of every moment a reader spends with it.
Other than the hesitations created by its length, it is Ellmann’s utilization of a seemingly endless stream-of-consciousness narrative style that drives both attention and resistance to the novel. Because of its use of this literary device, Ducks has garnered comparisons to Ulysses, and with good reason—it wouldn’t be a surprise if the unnamed narrator of Ducks was named Molly or Penelope behind the closed doors of Ellmann’s writing room. Her oft out and wandering husband, Leo(pold Bloom) and the context of Ellmann’s father, who was a scholar of Joyce, only adds to Joyce’s presence in the novel, which manages to stand strong and singular despite the lofty comparisons to modernist giants.
Ellmann has deliberately returned to the modernist, stream-of-consciousness narrative style in an effort to confront the postmodern, post-truth age, placing facts in the spotlight of the novel’s broadest interests—The phrase “the fact that,” occurs so many thousands of times in the novel that it begins to appear at the start of almost everything you read even outside of Ducks, which presents readers with direct access to single characters inner-monologue and thousands upon thousands of sometimes true and sometimes off-the-mark facts taken from a world so saturated with them that discerning a value to each seems overwhelming.
Ducks is certainly a novel of ideas, as one might expect of a 1000-page novel made up almost entirely of a character thinking. More grounded than the heady concepts of facts in modernist vs. postmodernist thought, the narrator approaches many hot-button American social and political issues such as gun and police violence, racist and sexist systems of oppression, women’s reproductive rights, rape culture, toxic masculinity and more. The novel also focuses heavily on the ideas of motherhood and familial structures, trauma and grief through the narrator’s own struggles with being a mom and the second narrative of the novel, which follows a mountain lion and her cubs.
Readers’ patience with intense repetition will directly correlate with how much they will enjoy reading Ducks. Not only are a handful of themes constantly referred to, but the ways in which they are discussed are often the same throughout the novel, which does help to add a realness and personality to the narrator’s thought process, but for those unwilling to retread, it might be tedious. The politics of the narrator and the general stances taken in the novel may alienate some readers as well; however, an educated guess would be that the politics within will really only alienate those ridiculous enough to be wearing red baseball caps.
Between the beautiful, breathless and charming narration of an Ohio housewife, the investigation of American culture, the captivating point-of-view and storyline of a mountain lion and even a little Stockholm Syndrome brought on by the novel’s length, Ducks is an engrossing experience and one that is very difficult to fully put behind you. No, not all 1000 pages are required to grasp the messages and themes of the novel, but time would be unwise to remember it as just another literary experiment or gimmick book when it is, at the least, an attempt at an honest expression of the current American era.
It would be hard to recommend this novel to everyone because there are more than a few barriers for both entry and enjoyment, but for readers intrigued by large tomes and narratives pushed forward more by thought than plot, Ducks, Newburyport offers a genuine and humorous grappling with the contemporary American moment and the effects it has on the relationships between people and their families, their neighbors, their government, their environment and themselves.