Pushing Boundaries, Challenging Conventions

Lucy Ellmann, who has been long part of the writing scene, barely rings a bell in most readers’ mind. This is despite the fact that her debut work, Sweet Desserts (1988) won the Guardian Prize Fiction. Some her works were also shortlisted or long listed in a score of literary award giving bodies. But it took several published works later that her name is slowly entering the consciousness of the general public. Her latest work, Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize and was touted by many pundits as a shoo in for the prestigious award.

Not everything goes to plan, as the old adage goes. In an unprecedented affair, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments were declared co-winners of the 2019 Man Booker Prize. The results were already minted on stones but ,any a reader has decried the result. The result might not have favored her but her Ellmann’s epic masterpiece created a buzz and left a huge impression on readers and literary critics alike.

“the fact that it’s unbelievable but every single thing alive has its own center of being, and looks out on the world from that point of view, even a worm, or a jellyfish, hamsters, owls, the fact that even a leaf has feelings, the fact that you know the leaves are enjoying this warm sun going right through them,” ~ Lucy Ellman, Ducks, Newburyport

Ducks, Newburyport is not your typical narrative, in every strict sense of the word. It is the story of an anonymous middle-class mother of four living in Newcomerstown, Ohio. She was a former college teacher but resigned from her post to recover after surviving cancer. To while away the time, she took on baking and cooking, catering several restaurants with her tartes tatin. But not everything is as simple as it looks like on the surface.

In what is perhaps her best and most memorable work to date, Ellmann conjured the monologue of a middle-aged woman. She was relating her domestic life, her family’s background and basically everything under the sun that she wants to discuss. All of these sound very domestic on the surface. However, lying underneath this veneer of domesticity and quotidian existence are deep concerns, worries, and anxieties of a middle-aged woman.

Through long and winding sentences, the primary narrator mediates on different subjects, subjects and themes that relevant in contemporary. The contemporary period is fraught with obstacles that perpetually makes navigating our quotidian existence a challenge. In a period of flagrant radical politicizing, blatant historical revisionism, and unabashed violence, one must strive to survive, not just for one’s self but for everyone who relies on her or on him.

What draws the readers towards the narrative is the soft and comforting voice of a mother. Ellmann, in a not-so-subtle manner, related the machinations of every mother’s mind. The endless soliloquy and ruminations of the main character gave the story a very distinct texture which has several layers to it. The primary story line is punctuated by the story of a lioness searching for her cubs.

the fact that I just realized that when this monologue in my head stops, I’ll be dead, or at least totally unconscious, like a vegetable or something, the fact that there are seven and a half billion people in the world, so there must be seven and a half billion of these internal monologues going on, apart from all the unconscious people, that’s seven and a half billion people worrying about their kids, or their moms, or both, as well as taxes and window sills and medical bills,” ~ Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport

The endless stream-of-thoughts serve as a facade shrouding the deeper core of the novel. At the start, the randomness of thoughts exhibit a lack of plot. However, as the narrative progresses and events accumulate, the story starts taking on a more distinct and solid form. More than the story, worries, and anxieties of a mother, Ducks, Newburyport is an immense satire that dips on several subjects that are relevant in contemporary America such as gun violence, information pollution, discrimination, and racism.

Through her encyclopedic work, Ellmann brought to the fore the current issues that are ailing contemporary America. Moreover, she was able to capture the nuances of daily existence. Her keen and careful attention to details gave the story a more profound atmosphere. Ellmann was able to capture the essence of domestic life and contrasted it with the national and universal issues that the contemporary society is surrounded with.

The writing was ambitious. Ellmann was pushing the envelop in her epic masterpiece. The start of each sentence, if indeed there are, is marked by the phrase, “the fact that”. For the most part, the book was grounded on facts – history, science, architecture and a an array of different subjects and themes. The narrator’s mind, however, had the tendency to wander but, overall, Ellmann ingeniously set into motion a voice that speaks to everyone.

It is the quintessential American narrative while at the same time a behemoth that stands separate from the typical American novel. However, it is also this lack of clear formula that distinguishes it from the rest. Ellmann’s unconventional approach to storytelling is one that is at once baffling and breathtaking. What surprises in this epic tale is the sincerity and honesty of the narrator.

Whilst it was mostly brilliant, the story could have used more tightening and editing. As one progresses through the narrative, the story becomes clearer and so are the novel’s primary flaw. It is just too loose; its over 1,000 pages could be reduced by two to three hundred pages. The word plays which was entertaining at the start becomes overbearing as it is repeatedly used; it started to sound like a broken record. Nonetheless, the flaws were more than made up for by the universal voice of a loving mother who cares not just for the present but also for the future.

“the fact that it’s just like the way they get about immigrants, the fact that maybe they’ve confused the lion with an undocumented alien, a non-native incomer that entered Ohio illegally, newcomer, Newcomerstown, Cheechako, Dreamer, a Mexican puma, the fact that Newcomerstown was once called Neighbourtown, so I am really out of place here, since I am not a good neighbour,” ~ Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport

Ducks, Newburyport is a sublime take on the challenges of living in contemporary America. However, the concerns are universal and profound and are even more critical and relevant in a society that is polluted by various negative elements and fraught with violence. It is a distinct voice that is screaming through the din and whilst it isn’t perfect, it is nonetheless a breathtaking character and social study.

More than the satire, Ellmann pushed the boundaries of writing with her powerful, if not idiosyncratic writing. She reminder us that the world of literature presents infinite means of making ordinary stories be heard through the din. Writers, present and past, keeps on unlocking uncanny ways to paint bigger pictures through words.  They conjure stories and tales, cascading messages and voices so that the rest of the world can hear them. Lucy Ellmann, in her own special way, made sure to pay tribute to these small voices through this encyclopedic novel.

Ratings:

86%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%)
 – 26%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

Many a reader has already mentioned it – Ducks, Newburyport is certainly a narrative, if you could call it one, that can be quite challenging to understand and appreciate. The narrative style could be a very big turnoff. Moreover, despite having published several books before, Ellmann is yet to be a household name. I surmise it is because of this eccentric and ambitious writing style. She certainly pushed the envelopes on this 2019 Man Booker Prize-shortlisted work.

Beyond the complexity and the idiosyncrasies, the book screams realities of what it is to live in contemporary America – the shootings, the turbulent political atmosphere, and the general feeling of uncertainty. These were all told through the stream-of-thoughts of a middle-class mother, a most effective device. But then again, this book is not for everyone. I am not sure how I was able to stay with it. Still a good read.

Book Specs

Author: Lucy Ellmann
Publisher:
Biblioasis
Publishing Date: September 2019
Number of Pages: 988
Genre: Satire

Synopsis

Baking a multitude of tartes tatin for local restaurants, an Ohio housewife contemplates her four kids, husband, cats and chickens. Also, America’s ignoble past, and her own regrets. She is surrounded by dead lakes, fake facts, Open Carry maniacs, and oodles of online advice about survivalism, veil toss duties, and how to be more like Jane Fonda. But what do you do when you keep stepping on your son’s toy tractors, your life depends on stolen land and broken treaties, and nobody helps you when you get a flat tire on the interstate, not even the Abominable Snowman? When are you allowed to start swearing.”

About the Author

imrs(Picture taken by Todd McEwan, published in Washington Post) Lucy Ellmann was born on October 18, 1956 in Evanston, Illinois to renowned literary critics Richard Ellmann and Mary Ellmann.

At the age of 13, she moved to England. She took her education at the Falmouth School of Art, earning her Foundation degree in 1975. In 1980, she graduated from the  Essex University with a Bachelor of Arts. A year later, she finished her Masters of Arts in Courtauld Institute of Art.

Ellmann literary career began with the publication of her autobiographical novel Sweet Desserts in 1988. It went on to win the Guardian Fiction Prize. Her second and third books, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (1991) and Man or Mango? (1998) were shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Her eighth and latest work, Ducks, Newburyport (2019) was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize and won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize.

Apart from writing, Ellmann lectured and led seminars at the University of Kent. She is also a regular contributor of articles on art and fiction to Artforum, Modern Paitners, and the Guardian. She is also a screenwriter. Ellmann has also received several honors and fellowships such as Royal Literary Fund, Queen Margaret University and University of Dundee. She was named a Hawthornden Fellows in 1992 and was a Hawthornden Fellowship resident at Hawthornden Castle.

Ellmann is currently based in Edinburgh, Scotland and is married to fellow writer Todd McEwen.