Long and short: Ducks, Newburyport and the art of the aphorism

In addition to being a long and complex novel, Ducks, Newburyport is also a master class in the art of the aphorism.

In a book as sprawling and evidently complex as Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, it is impossible to capture everything in one short review. Yesterday’s post left out, for example, the reckoning with grief the novel undertakes by way of the protagonist’s unresolved feelings for her late mother, the most significant figure in her life. (The title alludes to an incident in the mother’s childhood when she nearly drowned trying to reach some ducks in a pond.) Nor did it focus on the protagonist’s bout with cancer, which forms an important and thematically weighty thread throughout the book.

One thing yesterday’s review failed to mention – though it did touch on Ellmann’s humour – is the master class the novel offers in the art of the aphorism. For a book that runs to more than 1,000 pages, it is remarkable how, on practically every page, there can be found small jewels of wisdom or humour or piercing observation. Here are a few that jumped out on a first read (capital letters and periods have been added for ease of reading when taken out of context):

  • “Attics and basements kind of cry out for anarchy.” p. 28
  • “I don’t know how you can enjoy your nails after you killed your manicurist.” p. 42
  • “I think the reason I have no memory is I find the past unbearable.” p. 46
  • “You’d think a children’s writer might want to keep his love of mass murder to himself, if only for the sake of sales.” p. 225
  • “Guests are like fish, they stink after three days.” p. 234
  • “The only antidote to reality is dreams, and vice versa, along with plenty of cups of coffee.” p. 408
  • “Not everything is about scampering headlong. A lion is formed for the art of not moving at all.” p. 430
  • “He merely asked me if I thought the number of ukuleles in music store windows accurately reflects the current level of interest in ukuleles.” p. 678
  • “You’d probably have more of a chance with a lion or a tiger or a bear or something than you would with a well-armed crazy person bent on killing anybody and everybody.” p. 757
  • “I hate it when people use the gas pedal as a form of self-expression.” p. 795
  • “Men are so emotional sometimes, so gosh darn angry.” p. 889
Long and short: Ducks, Newburyport and the art of the aphorism
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