What we have is a person

Lucy Ellman, Ducks, Newburyport

Galley Beggar, 1030pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781910296967

reviewed by Neil Griffiths

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d manage to read Ducks, Newburyport. My mental health was not good and even much shorter books defeated me. I wasn’t reading much at all really, if you discount research, which I only managed as a distraction on the tube. Depression not only takes the general joy out of life, it likes to focus on specifically joyous things as well, and a 1000-page one-sentence novel published by Galley Beggar was likely to be a joyous thing.

It was around 11am on Saturday morning. I’d just made coffee and was sitting at the top of the house on a chair in the corner of my office – a retreat. There was nothing I wanted to read. Nothing I could face reading. And there it was, an advance copy, an almost cuboid block of white, a snow brick. A kind of resignation made me pick it up: ‘I might as well find out what it’s like before I accept, at least for a time, it and many other things are beyond me’.

First, it’s not as billed one sentence. You know that immediately from all the full stops on page one. The first page is about a north American cougar and its kittens. Given that I thought the novel was about a middle-age housewife this didn’t bode well. I tend to be suspicious of novels that begin with cute narrative devices (childhood memory, fairy tale, stories of animals). It always feels as if the writer is not fully confident that the reader will ‘get’ the text without it, or they are worried the reader won’t be appropriately emotionally orientated and needs nudging in the right direction. In this instance, my first thought was: ‘Hold on . . . this is not what I expected, lions and full stops.’ But by the end of the first sentence, there was that rare and inexplicable sensation : ‘Hold on . . . something special is going on here.’ After which, a page later, we’re into the one sentence (albeit broken up every 50 pages or so with a short section about the big cat and her cubs).

Now, you’ll have to forgive me: I want to spend some time on the three words that begin the one sentence and kick off every new thought in the book, three words that must be repeated at least 7,000 times over the 1,000 pages. In common parlance these three words used together are a verbal tick deployed in at least three ways:

1) a kind of vocalised ellipse to convince someone (ourselves and / or others) we know the connection between our next utterance and the preceding one (ours or theirs) when we really don’t
2) a sneaky speech act to anchor a wildly speculative non sequitur
3) most amusingly, a rhetorical feint when we want to claim our new thought is somehow final and conclusive.

Those three words are:

‘the fact that’

Before I get into my rather recondite analysis of their use in this text – none of the above actually applies – may I just say that as a literary device it works, my God it works. It makes you (the reader) feel the whole thing – all 1,000 pages – were somehow dashed off (by the writer) in the time it takes for the narrator to think the thoughts we are reading. Reading time feels like our own thought time, which isn’t really time at all, as it is usually constituted; it’s more akin to Henri Bergson’s notion of durée – felt time. We don’t read this book; we feel along with it.

So what’s its effect? I’m going to use Schubert’s Winterreise and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as analogues. The pianist Graham Johnson said about the opening of the first song of Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise: ‘from the very beginning we are on the move’, and while it is a more stately and sombre opening than the beginning of the one sentence section of Ducks, Newburyport, ‘the fact that’ offers up the same sense of momentum; it tilts us forward and we are on our way. It is my contention this has something to do with a missing first beat. Imagine the sentence starts with and continually repeats ‘And the fact that’ – which is what people often say, using the ‘and’ to stretch out their utterance between thoughts so no one else can get into the conversation! In the written form, however, the ‘and’ becomes a hard downbeat and the long vowel pulls us back, making the rhythm more four-square and plodding. At the same time, the tone becomes little hectoring – a bit pointy at the chest. The whole enterprise would feel like a forced march. It’s interesting this, because ‘and’ is very much the connective of choice in so-called ‘stream of consciousness’ work.

There is a ‘missing’ first note in the opening bar of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the audible music starts on the second beat. The first stressed note, the DAAA of da-da-da-DAAA, is in the next bar. And so it is with the rhythm of Ducks, Newburyport, every first word that follows the three quarter notes of ‘the fact that’ feels like the first stressed note of each clause, and it is these stresses that prevent the novel becoming too swift and easy, just one long meandering stream on whose banks we can laze about, enjoying ourselves in a fun but ultimately safe place. It is these stresses that give the writing its strong current, its urgent undertow. What we have here is a wide, eddying, tidal river with warnings posted along its banks. This is a writer that understands fate might always knock at your door.

So what of this form? The so-called ‘stream of consciousness’? The term was first used in the mid 19th century by Alexander Bain to describe how data from senses converge in the mind as one indistinguishable flow. It wasn’t used as a literary term until the early part of the 20th century. Between times Freud was developing his topological description of the mind (preconscious-conscious-unconscious). This seems to me a more accurate description of the thought-world of the narrator of Ducks, Newburyport. It might be that on the page one thought follows another, but the reading experience is more like being witness to different modes of consciousness shifting across one another: thoughts surface and submerge, ideas breach and sound, worries are aired, then hidden away, only to be rise up again. In this sense, the novel is a work of the play of the mind in the way we know it (mis) behaves. It may seem odd given the profoundly different creative choices taken, but Ducks, Newburyport has a lot in common with a previous Galley Beggar book, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, both novelists understand consciousness isn’t an unimpeded stream, it jolts and switches; there is little reverie, it seldom soothes. The length of the sentences or the amount of full stops are irrelevant.

So what of the content? We have a shy middle-aged mother with four children, one from a previous marriage, running a pie business from her kitchen in Ohio. Her preoccupations are too numerous to mention. She is very funny. There are one liners as well as incrementally building ironies. Although she’d deny it, she is acutely intelligent. She is honest about her mothering, her failures and irritations. Early on we learn she believes herself ‘broken’ by her mother’s death. At times she is judgemental; now and again she is little passive aggressive. It is perhaps here that the novel is at its human best. (Writing is better when its human first, humane second.) Yet try as I might I can’t quite formulate why this is the case. It isn’t enough to list the narrator’s virtues (many) and vices (few), as if that is enough to confirm, yes, this character is well-rounded, tick.

So much more is going on here. The topological rendering of all that she is so integrated any analysis of her character, any deconstruction of her personality is jejune. However much we might want to drain the narrator through some kind of hermeneutic filter she will not be separated out into essentials that can be moved around and investigated, organised into some orthodox taxonomy of characterisation. Ellman knows people aren’t like that – normal, ordinary people, anyway. The reason this novel is 1,000 pages long is that this is the fewest amount of pages needed to disclose to the reader a human being that isn’t there to represent a type, enact a theme, stand for something. Any fewer pages and she would have had to have written a different kind of novel, one where stuff that doesn’t happen to most people outside of novels happens, and in doing so reduce her character to . . . well, a character. In this novel what we have is a person.

I read Ducks Newburyport over two months, most often at night. There was nothing else I wanted to read. Everything else seemed . . . I’m not sure what. Maybe everything else was just not Ducks, Newburyport. Not her. Not seemingly about everything without end. Each night I wanted to find myself in the middle of something, and this novel provides that in form and content: the action takes place in the middle of a life and the middle of our lives (situationally and longitudinally) are long. It wasn’t escapism or therapy; it was about being connected to something at the deepest level for the longest time. Literature seldom does this. There is Proust’s narrator, Leopold Bloom, Wiley Silenowicz in Harold Brodkey’s mad and maddening The Runaway Soul, but there ends my list. (I’m no Knausgaad fan.)

I have said elsewhere reading Ducks, Newburyport was a restorative, even a reparative experience. I felt healthier for reading it. Each night, incrementally, it was making me better. And it might be because of this I am not really fit to make any grand claims for it: masterpiece, miracle, genius etc., although I am certain it is all these things. What I will say, however, is that like other great works of art, I believe when we reflect back on Ducks, Newburyport we will think it strange that the world once existed without it. This is one definition of timelessness. Not so much that a work of art is perennially relevant, but that we feel it has always been with us, somehow in its newness we recognise it. This is why I picked it up on that Saturday morning, weary and depressed as I was: it was already part of me.

Neil Griffiths is the author of the novels Betrayal In Naples and Saving Caravaggio. His latest novel, As A God Might Be, is out now.