Why, I asked some months back in these pages, do the protagonists in American fiction these days seem so lost? What is it they’re all so het up about? Well… everything. At least according to the narrator of Ducks, Newburyport.
Lucy Ellmann’s monster novel is a more or less non-stop narration of the thoughts of one Ohio housewife, a former college teacher who now bakes pies for money, attempts to keep her household shipshape, feels the pinch of post-bail-out America, is frustrated in the usual ways, and frets persistently about the physical, moral and emotional safety of her offspring (other people’s too) in those ostensibly United States.
Song lyrics, boarlets, clickbait headlines, bits of her children’s homework, first world problems, Schubert, shopping, getting cancer, the Amish, things she’s forgotten, assassinated presidents, FOOSH injuries, actors’ names, wordplays, her mother’s death, Revere Ware pots (me neither), the life and works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, styptic sticks, lines from Shakespeare, fake-brick wallpaper, captions for YouTube videos, her husband’s fear of bridge-collapses, her own Midwest gosh-darn-it lexicon, the plots of classic movies, ‘Indian’ burial mounds, lists of places/diseases/brandnames/pies (Umberto Eco would have very much approved).
All human — at least, all-American — life is here. And death too, obvs. There are, in case you hadn’t heard, a lot of shootings.
At random, from page 52: ‘Miss America, misanthropy, missed opportunity… willy-nilly, folkloric, the fact that a female police officer led a double life for nine years, Horror Movie Hotel… the fact that it’s not just my outfits that bug Stace though, the fact that it’s everything I do, or don’t do, the fact that, boy, she keeps a beady eye on me…’
These ‘facts’, the hooks for her seemingly ever-expanding tapestry: ‘the fact that anyway I think you can overdo remembering stuff’, ‘the fact that everybody’s got a gun now’, ‘the fact that it begins to seem positively unAmerican to internalize things’, ‘the fact that Philip Glass can get a little bit repetitive’, ‘the fact that I think there’s maybe too much emphasis on facts these days, or maybe there are just too many facts’.
So by ‘everything’ I really do mean everything. Through all these facts, distracts, and (mis)rememberings (there is an iffy G&S line somewhere), our unnamed Everywoman becomes a living, breathing information overload, perhaps the most intensely real depiction of the life of the quotidian mind I’ve ever witnessed.
And while ‘neurotic’ might be overstating it, this is a woman who is worrying 24/7, across the entire imaginable gamut (she worries about that too), rising to quite alarming levels of morbidity, especially — and you can rather see this coming — with regards to violence against women, mothers and/or children in every corner of the faunal kingdom. Intermingled with her own glacial release of biographic data (what one might otherwise be calling ‘narrative’), there come sporadic scenes from the unfolding story of a mountain lioness and her cubs — which come to bear.
In all, in its assessment of the Big Contemporary American Themes of violence, headline news and environmentalism, what Ducks… amounts to is one great trauma diagnosis for the entire country: ‘The fact that people are always saying this isn’t “who we are as a nation”, but, well, it kind of is.’ The book was published, with mordant wit, on the 4th of July.
Unless you too are a nervous, baking-enthusiast Ohio housewife it’s fair to say your sympathy will wax and wane a little as the book goes on; but Ellmann’s Joycean achievement is to drag you along, complicitly, in her endurance marathon of anxiety and trivia — not least, of course, because you’ve no idea what might or might not turn out to be trivia (‘ducks, Newburyport’).
It’s a colossal feat. And if you didn’t exactly see it cluttering the beach reads lists this summer — it may yet be more read about than read — it’s now been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (announced next month), and frankly that’s no less than it deserves.