Reviews

Language’s Coincidences in ‘Ducks, Newburyport’

A review of Lucy Ellmann's novel.

The word ‘Leo’ can mean many things; it can refer to the zodiac sign; it is a nickname for Leonardo DiCaprio; Leonardo da Vinci; refers to a caring engineer living in Ohio. We usually consider Paris as being a part of France, but it can also be Paris, Texas. Ducks can mean fowl, or the action of lowering one’s head. ‘Effect’ and ‘affect’ are easily confused, and “Madam I am Adam” delivers a drop of pleasure upon recognizing that it’s a palindrome. In essence, words are slippery and their meanings vague. Yet that slipperiness also forms bridges where none might exist. It brightens our speech. Taking this fact as the basis for transitions and connections, Lucy Ellmann has written an effervescent novel, Ducks, Newburyport, that encompasses a contemporary life by underscoring the material language that composes its consciousness.

Written as mostly one momentous sentence in which full stops are abandoned, the thousand-page Ducks, Newburyport is unapologetic in how it molds a consciousness on the page. That consciousness acts as a nexus for the noise of contemporary life, occasionally to an enervating, exhilarating effect. From the moment the novel introduces our unnamed narrator on a morning in Ohio, when the sound of raccoons raiding garbage sound like gunshots, the novel pings from one disparate topic to another — without regard for a sequence of events.

Our narrator runs errands, talks with family and neighbors, and bakes in the kitchen, but her limited actions do not restrain her concerns. A limited selection of her preoccupations includes: humankind’s pillaging of nature, nature’s occasional encroachment on us, domestic abuse, Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, gun violence, Dupont’s nefarious activities, pies, Laura Ingalls Wilder, healthcare costs, chickens, Dustin Hoffman’s best film — The Graduate — adolescent trauma, Trump, violence done to indigenous communities, parenthood, and the difficulties of flipping a tarte tatin. Lists like this appear often in the novel, though often longer.

The narrator is a middle-aged mother of four: Stacy, from a previous marriage, and Ben, Gillian, and Jake, from her current marriage to the endearing Leo. She is a shy, anxious worrier who takes care of the kids and bakes for some side money while her husband works two jobs to keep them afloat. Other individuals populate her thoughts, like her deceased parents, aunt, baking clients, a MAGA-hat-wearing neighbor, and pets. Her baking hours are anything but peaceful. They are troubled by nervous tangents about her family, neighbors, pets, and clients. She has anxieties about the dire events that crash in from the news, like mass shootings and domestic abuse.

The only breaks from the continuous sentence are the short sections that follow a female mountain lion roaming the surrounding areas in an ever-tighter spiral around Columbus, OH. In her journey, the mountain lion witnesses disparities in men, sees one who is seemingly close to nature and has surrounded himself with the “long, thin concave forms of canoes, the nests that men used to float on water,” and watches the general populace in their cars while they “slashed and stabbed and scarred their way across the earth.” Filled with conventionally lovely sentences, the prose here shrinks its scope upon entering the mountain lion’s comparatively clear and simple mind.

With its winding, repetitive structure, Ducks, Newburyport’s narrative follows a similar path to the mountain lion’s spiraling journey. First, it casts out a barrage of facts, memories, images, lists, brands, and worries. Then, it slowly pulls the most vital pieces in to extract a story from all the clutter. The transitions from one thought to the next depend on wordplay and flights of fancy that lend the novel an improvisational feel, but as the book closes in on the thrilling — and unexpected — conclusion, the disparate strands tossed out at the novel’s onset gleam with import.

Ellmann uses many devices to connect our narrator’s stray thoughts. Chief among them is the generative capabilities contained in language’s coincidences, its palindromes, rhymes, tongue-twisters, and puns. A typical sequence might have our narrator think about Howard Hawks, whom the narrator often mixes up with Howard Hughes, which leads her to think about Leonardo DiCaprio; DiCaprio, who played Hughes in the The Aviator, reminds her of her husband. This causes her to think about Leonardo da Vinci’s engineering interest in the human foot. More often than not, the word associations bubble up and burst as slight, inconsequential digressions, like when she discusses Michelin’s failure to award stars to any restaurant in “fly-over country,” a fact that upsets her enough to think that “they should stick with the tire business and stop tiring everybody out.” Quips like this litter Ducks, Newburyport like the gleaming detritus of a treasure-filled junkyard; they are the leftovers from the fact that language is a living, evolving structure.

Our narrator is painfully aware of language’s plasticity, its slipperiness, its power. Her awareness often causes her to worry she’s not getting her meaning across, even if she’s only thinking to herself. Besides the quick jokes, she often pauses her thought-torrents to clarify pronouns, even though the pronouns are usually clear, like when she thinks, “the fact that I was already shaking so much my cup was skittering all around on the Kinkels’ little fancy-edged saucer, the fact that they gave us tea in those fancy cups, the fact that it’s a wonder they survived our visit, the cups, I mean, not the Kinkels.” Her care for language extends to her efforts not to use words that even approach cusses and she uses various tricks, like calling her butt a “sit-me-down-upon,” to communicate what she means without having to say it: as if the words had a talisman’s power.

In these instances and throughout the book, Ducks, Newburyport directs us back to the language on the page, so we become hyper-aware of it. We start finding our own connections. By foregrounding the multiplicity within individual words, Ellmann has made a case that a richer, less regimented language leads to a more vibrant and capacious mind, and has thus crafted the entrancing Ducks, Newburyport into a celebration of all that words, and the minds they build, can contain.

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