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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Logorrhoeic Lioness (or why time is not wasted on Ducks, Newburyport)

Updated: Jan 20, 2021



Firstly, I must thank all of you who have so far connected with the blog - a generous response that raised my spirits over a midweek when it drizzled steadily out of a sky "the colour of television tuned to a dead channel", to quote William Gibson.

It also made me painfully aware that, having finally got this thing started, I will need to keep it up.

So, I intend shortly to bombard you with a succession of posts reflecting my lockdown reading and listening. These will include accounts of the the extraordinary fictions of the Australian writer Gerald Murnane, the famously oblique poetry of John Ashbery, Thomas Pynchon's dizzying Mason & Dixon, the work of the eccentric British symphonist, Havergal Brian, and the first two instalments in Gibson's ongoing Peripheral Trilogy, as well as progress reports on my slow, steady and, I trust, ultimately complete traversal of A la Recherce du Temps Perdu.

Yet none of these seems to me quite the thing to begin with.

No, I will devote my inaugural book post to something I read at the end of last year and that I have been wholeheartedly recommending ever since.


***


The small Massachusetts coastal town of Newburyport served as the model for H.P. Lovecraft's sinister Innsmouth, its decaying streets shielding a population of interbred cultists, slowly turning into slimy fish. With the appearance of Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport - one of the most exhilarating novels I have come across in recent years - it should take on more wholesome literary associations.

Ellmann is the daughter of distinguished scholars whose respective specialisms in James Joyce and feminist theory certainly inform her writing. Critics, however, have made too much of this parental inheritance, as though there were something eccentric about the work of a contemporary woman novelist reflecting two of the greatest shaping influences on modern writing. These days, literary boldness, originality and ambition always seem to require some sort of explanation or apology. Shame on those reviewers who said that Ellmann's magnum opus was in a single sentence, or that it was in eight sentences in presumed homage to the monologue of Molly Bloom. Neither of these statements is true. Nor is it the case that Ducks, Newburyport consists of 998 pages in which "nothing happens". It is long, and it does have (mild) stylistic quirks, but these serve a stirring aesthetic purpose. In fact, I should preface my remarks on this wonderful book by insisting that it is thoroughly readable (a word I rather dislike), very funny, warmly sympathetic, and cumulatively exciting.

It is a novel with two heroines to cheer for, both unnamed. One is a mountain lioness (most likely an eastern cougar, according to Wikipedia), the other an Ohio housewife in early middle-age, - herself a figurative lioness in being married to a man named Leo - prematurely retired from her career as a history teacher after serious health crises.

We begin in the cougars den. She has just given birth and her pungent, feral world - "all sinew, struggle and solitude", alleviated by the new instincts of motherhood - is powerfully and economically evoked in stark declarative sentences. Then, after just over a page, we are in the housewife's kitchen. Her husband is away, and she is about her daily therapeutic task of baking cherry pies. As she bakes, she worries about the safety of her four fast-growing children, the ageing of her body, the poisoning of the environment, the election of Donald Trump, the insanity of America's gun culture... The vision that rapidly builds up of a poisoned, violent world heedlessly hurling itself into self-induced apocalypse would be unutterably depressing, were it not that these dark thoughts are interspersed with cheerier ones relating to her generally happy marriage, the films, books and music she likes, her small joys, queries and exasperations. Underlying it all, an unassuageable sadness related to the death of her mother (from Newburyport).

In contrast to the cougar's world of immediate physical sensation, the housewife's is one mediate by language and conveyed in lengthy blocks of dithyrambic prose, punctuated only by commas and the connecting phrase, "the fact that". Initially I feared the phrasal repetition would become obsessive and wearisome; within a few pages, I had stopped noticing it. The technique is not so much punning, as in Joyce, as associative, in the manner of Gertrude Stein (though far less grinding and austere than, say, Stein's The Making of Americans).And with much better jokes. It is impossible to convey the torrential effect through brief quotation, but I can't help trying. This comes in the wake of a reported tirade from Leo about the phoniness of David Attenborough.


...the fact that I sort of have to watch David Attenborough's plant show in secret now, and because of that I haven't seen it for a long time, the fact that I find it kind of comforting, I don't know why, the fact that lots of people get into botany in later life, or bonsai, the fact that plants don't move much, unless they speed up the film, so it's usually a pretty restful show to watch, like golf can be sometimes, if you have to watch it, amorphous phallus, the fact that bananas grow from a corm, and they're radioactive, just a little, the fact that Leo says its because of the potassium, groundhogs, mongooses, anorexia, dust devils, tumbleweed, the fact that scientists sometimes measure radiation in relation to the amount of radiation there is in a banana, like one banana's worth of radiation, two bananas' worth, the fact that it doesn't sound very precise to me, because bananas vary in size, but what do I know, I don't know but they know, the fact that they call it the Banana Equivalent Dose, BED, the fact that I think it should stand for Banana Eating Danger, or Better not Eat Dat...


From James and Proust onward, there have been notable attempts to capture the workings of the seething human psyche in words, but none, I think, as persuasive and engaging as this one. And, however free Ellmann's associations become, they rarely defy readerly comprehension. Before long, the pages are flying by.

But what about the cougar?, I hear you ask.

Well, had I forgotten about her, I would have been in the company of most of the book's reviewers, who seem not to have appreciated her relevance. (How much of the book did they actually read?) In fact, her bleak adventures, circling the the wintry landscape once populated by Ohio's prehistoric moundbuilders (significantly wiped out by imported European microbes) afford the novel some of its most haunting images, as well as the engine of its plot. (Yes, it does have one.) In the early stretches, it might appear as though the lioness interpolations - extremely vivid, but only a page or so long, sometimes shorter - will be lost in the housewife's logorrhoea. But Ellmann has a trick up her sleeve; a trick depending on the effects of scale that are perhaps only possible in really huge novels. Suddenly, on page 572 - about the point at which a conventionally "long" novel might end - something shockingly distressing happens to the lioness. Something that drives her courageously into the domain of humans, whose foul smells and destructive ways revolt her. The balance of the text shifts and, beguiling though the human character's sections remain, one longs urgently to get back to the feline, whose quest takes on all the drama of one of David Attenborough's recent wildlife narratives. Woman and lion never quite meet, though they come tantalisingly close, and the second part of the book builds steadily in suspense to encompass a beast hunt, gunshots, a car crash, and a mini home invasion.

I must, in fairness, say that I am not entirely sure about the effect of the last of these, which gives the book, late in the day, a rather decorative coda. But this is a very minor quibble indeed. Ducks, Newburyport will surely take its place in the select canon of encyclopedic novels - those novels that, in the words of Edward Mendelson, " attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture". And it should be an especially honourable place on at least three counts. Firstly, its entirely female focus; secondly, its use of relatively restricted, largely domestic, settings; thirdly - and most remarkably - its pointed topicality.

Encyclopedic novels tend to be masculine and geographically expansive. Don Quixote, Ishmael and Tyrone Slothrop are men with miles to go before they sleep. Leopold Bloom may not stray so far, but still tramps the streets of Dublin from dawn till well after dusk. They also tend to locate their action in a period of recent history. Written in the 1860s, War and Peace is set some half a century earlier, during the time of Napoleonic threat; Ulysses, completed in 1920, painstakingly recreates a single day in 1904; Gravity's Rainbow, from 1973, opens during a fantasticated Second World War. Even Moby-Dick, though not exactly historical, describes a whaling industry that had undergone profound change in the decade since Melville's own experience of it, with human harpooneers giving way to the mechanised harpoon gun.

There is a fairly obvious reason for this temporal distancing. Long novels take a long time to write, especially if you want to pack them with cultural information. All the more remarkable, then that, with the Trump era still not over (we may indeed, God forbid, be less than half-way through it!) Lucy Ellmann should have already given it the excoriating encyclopedic testament it deserves. She appears to have written in a white heat of inspiration and indignation.

I suppose it will always be the fact that some readers will baulk at the prospect of a book as vast as Ellmann's. As we sit around chomping our radioactive bananas - (well, not me actually, I loathe the things) - and the world sinks further into entropic chaos, the reading of a very long novel largely concerned with environmental devastation might seem a trivial, even an irresponsible activity. To which I would respond that there are much shorter books that have taken me much longer. With time becoming an increasingly precious luxury, the intensity and completeness of the reading experiences I commit to come to matter more and more. In the time that I took to read Ducks, Newburyport I could probably have had a perfectly good time reading three or four titles by Julian Barnes or Ian McEwen. But I had a just great time with the lionesses!

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