The word “experimental” is bandied around a bit too profligately when it comes to fiction that does not cleave to a clearly recognizable tradition of mimetic naturalism. Like “alternative music” in the 1990s, the term “experimental fiction” has been deployed so broadly, to describe a wide array of books that otherwise bear little resemblance to one another, it runs the risk of losing whatever critical meaning it might once have carried.
In any case, it is often misapplied to books that don’t entirely warrant the designation. Lucy Ellmann’s gargantuan, unconventional novel Ducks, Newburyport, a finalist for the 2019 Booker Prize, is not precisely experimental, at least when compared with novels like Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – books that represent a radical reconstitution of what a novel looks like or is capable of conveying. These are books that deconstruct the very architecture of storytelling in an attempt at radical revisioning.
By contrast, the stream-of-consciousness that Ellmann provides in Ducks, Newburyport should be readily recognizable to anyone familiar with the early 20th century modernists, especially Joyce, Woolf, and Proust. (One clear jumping off point for Ellmann’s novel is Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the close of Joyce’s Ulysses.) Where Ellmann most explicitly diverges from her modernist forebears is in her novel’s precise construction: a single sentence running to almost 1,000 pages that follows the meandering thoughts of a middle-aged Ohio everywoman who is baking a series of tartes tatin and other confections in her kitchen while musing on everything from American gun violence to climate change to the relative virtues of the Hollywood western Shane. Instead of conventional full stops to separate sentences as linguistic units, Ellmann substitutes the repeated phrase “the fact that,” creating a kind of incantatory rhythm used to urge the prose forward.
What is most astonishing about this approach is how propulsive it is. There are whole swathes, some running to twenty pages or more, that positively fly past under the unbreakable forward momentum of the prose. These include sequences of domestic angst or peril, as when Stacy, the woman’s eldest daughter, disappears from home, an apparent runaway, or when the family is trapped in a mall during a violent storm. Ellmann is particularly good at riffing on pop culture, as in her protagonist’s ongoing appraisal of the Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin movie It’s Complicated, or an extended meditation on Marie Kondo:
the fact that there’s some woman who helps people declutter, the fact that you have to hold every possession in your hands and decide if it gives you joy, the fact that if it does, you get to keep it, and if it doesn’t, you dump it, the fact that everything you’ve got has to deliver, the fact that Scotch tape doesn’t give me any joy, I don’t think, but sometimes you need some, the fact that a book on decluttering might not give you joy either, but you might still need it, six months, the fact that what if you miss something you dumped and it’s too late, because it’s already landfill, six-pack wastefulness, plastic rings on turtle waistlines, the fact that that poor woman must be so lost when she needs to sew on a button or something and she got rid of all her needles and thread because they didn’t bring her joy, the buttons too, the fact that she must just wander around her apartment all day wishing she hadn’t thrown this or that out, the fact that some things might come in handy some day in ways you never even thought of, the fact that she’s rich though, so she can just go out and buy some more buttons or Scotch tape or whatever it is she needs, the fact that I hope she’s hanging on to her tax returns
Passages such as this one also illustrate Ellmann’s facility for humour. Ducks, Newburyport is a very funny novel, though the humour is not the showy kind – it rarely calls attention to itself. It is of a piece with the tone of the woman’s interior monologue, which alternates from matter-of-fact to agitated to furious to anguished, sometimes over the course of a few pages.
As with the tone, so too with the subject matter. The unnamed woman at the novel’s core is a former history teacher who now makes her living baking and selling pies. Over the course of her interior monologue, she ranges across subjects domestic and otherwise: the properties of a perfect lemon drizzle cake and the Sandy Hook school shooting provide equal fare for her musings.
The most immediate literary referent for the domestic minutiae throughout the novel is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, though Ellmann owes a greater debt to the Virginia Woolf of Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. By juxtaposing the domestic material with more sweeping national and political concerns, the novel provides a vivid cross-section of post-9/11 America as seen through the eyes of a representative woman whose personal anxieties about her past and present, and that of her family, are compounded by the burdens of worry over random school shootings, the rise of neo-Nazis and the far right, and runaway climate change.
The single, stream-of-consciousness sentence that comprises the bulk of the book is intermittently interrupted by short sections that follow a lioness and her cubs as they roam around the city searching for food and trying to evade the human hunters dispatched to capture them. These brief interregnums, which are presented in conventional prose and narrated in close third person, refract and clarify the themes of the main narrative: notions of motherhood and responsibility to family, as well as survival and societal power structures.
In its entirety, Ducks, Newburyport represents a towering fictional edifice that is as engaging and readable as it is formally ambitious. By filtering the concerns and misgivings of 21st-century America through the psyche of a nameless woman who is simultaneously universal and blazingly individual, Ellmann has created a novel that demands our attention, a book that is at once urgent and angry and touching and entertaining.