Static in the Jungle: “Ducks, Newburyport” by Lucy Ellmann

The sheer contemporariness of this book in terms of what it is about, how it is executed, and the meanderings of an anxious mother as she tries to navigate the horrors and threats to her safety and sanity makes it a terrifying, wonderful, and indescribable narrative that covers close to eleven hundred pages and skyrockets Ellmann from a relatively obscure never-writing-a-normal-narrative-so-don’t-tell-me-about-your-MFA American ex-pat novelist to the forefront of the new guard as a Booker Prize Finalist last year… and you thought that first sentence of my review was long? Wait till ya read it!

Ducks tells the story of an American Divorcee’s meandering daily thoughts, many of which only seem to touch upon very few actual events in her life. The story is more in the form of a clause-by-comma-driven reflection on not only the life of the protagonist, but her daily momentous anxieties of everything from gun laws, to tragic accidents, to politics, the presidency, justice, men, women, children, life, death, the contents of her cupboard, marriage, divorce, parenthood, and primarily what the point of life is at all if you are so anxious of everything all the time. Frankly, I immediately thought that this was just her character and that it was a book about the anxieties of modern times, but it turns out (about ninety percent of the way through the novel… yes, page 900 or so) that we learn where these anxieties sprang from and why she spirals in her mental space so often…

The most beautiful parts of the novel to me were a second story (that eventually pays off at the end way more than the rest of the novel did for me). Straight out of Tiger King, a violent and tragic takeover of a private menagerie results in a second incredible narrator that kept me engaged. It pops up in small interlineations throughout the book, and to me, drives the story and provides a miraculous and beautiful contrast to the primary narrator. Not to give any of the story away, but a careful reader will see where and why the two stories intersect, and to me it is the most beautiful part of the novel.

Honestly, I felt like putting this book down so many times it was embarassing, and it took a disciplined reading through the quarantine to pick it up more often in three weeks than I had the previous three months of carrying it around and reading other books. That said, the payoff at the end for the primary narrator didn’t work for me, but the secondary narrator and its gorgeous and stealthly stalking through the primary narrator’s pages was worth all of it. I think the main issue is that the narrative, while unusual and cool, was exploring some of the writing of the original postmodernists – James Joyce being the easiest comparison to make… But this book was not a James Joyce book, and I think that was the most difficult part of staying engaged here. I couldn’t help feeling frustrated that the narrative was a bit of a gimmick and that to me the final payoff was so unsatisfying – in fact, if the reason for its execution was simply the execution of it, whether or not there was a bit more of an allegorical or archetypal or satiric connection of any kind, I would have been able to live with it a lot more satisfied and easier than being given a reason that felt so deflating later in the novel. In that way, it feels nothing like Joyce and just feels… well, like useless static until it is GIVEN a reason for being useless static. I know I live in America. I know what our anxieties are, but I also know many people whose minds race in this way lacking any reason but for living in America in 2020… That’s enough.

Here is the part that makes me the most frustrated for Ellmann… Reading it during the COVID19 quarantine, seeing everything happening in our world and government, and after watching Tiger King on Netflix… I almost wish it was revised and came out today. The revisions and additions, the motivations and the suffocating isolation, the perpetual violence and fear… these things are all in there, and it is totally a book for our times, but MAN it feels like such a missed opportunity not to have been a part of it. Or, is there a miraculous clairvoyant supernatural coincidence at work? In this way, I suppose the book is a complete work of genius and I read it at the perfect time… but it was certainly way, way too long.

1 Comment

  1. Apparently WordPress has been hiding your posts from me. Anyway, yeah, this novel was a massive dud for me. The same literary trick done over and over again for over a thousand pages? My god….


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