In the latest issue:

Consider the Hermit Crab

Katherine Rundell

Emigrés on the Make

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Autopsy of an Election

James Butler

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

‘Cosmo’ for Capitalists

Stefan Collini

Kara Walker’s ‘Fons Americanus’

Cora Gilroy-Ware

So many ships and fleets and armies

N.A.M. Rodger

British Sea Power

Paul Rogers

Richard Holbrooke

Samuel Moyn

Four poems after Callimachus

Stephanie Burt

‘Your Duck Is My Duck’

Christian Lorentzen

On Paul Muldoon

Clair Wills

Leanne Shapton

Namara Smith

Antigone on Your Knee

Terry Eagleton

‘Parasite’

Michael Wood

Walter Pater

Elizabeth Prettejohn

Two Poems

Rae Armantrout

Diary: In Monrovia

Adewale Maja-Pearce

The Reality EffectJon Day
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Ducks, Newburyport 
by Lucy Ellmann.
Galley Beggar, 1030 pp., £13.99, September, 978 1 913111 98 4
Show More
Show More

Themind, according to Henri Bergson, is like a ‘single sentence that was begun at the first awakening of consciousness, a sentence strewn with commas but in no place cut by a period’. William James preferred the image of a stream: consciousness, he wrote, ‘does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as “chain” or “train” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows.’ It was May Sinclair who applied the term ‘stream of consciousness’ to fiction (it’s unclear whether or not she had James’s definition in mind), in a review of the first three volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage in 1918. Richardson wasn’t convinced: ‘amongst the company of useful labels devised to meet the exigencies of literary criticism,’ she wrote, ‘it stands alone, isolated by its perfect imbecility.’

Modernist fiction’s best-known long sentences are those of Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses, as she lies in bed next to her husband, drifting in and out of sleep. In this fragmentary jumble of thoughts, images, sensations and memories, rammed together in a style Hugh Kenner called ‘unmortared’, Joyce came close to inventing a language that seemed to contain the mind’s endless restlessness.

Lucy Ellmann’s new novel, Ducks, Newburyport, does not, despite the claims of some reviewers, consist of a single sentence (I counted 880). But it does contain one very long one: a comma-strewn stream that follows the thoughts of an Ohioan housewife during the first few months of 2017. While she bakes the pies she sells to local diners she worries about her four children, considers language usage (the difference between ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy’ and ‘affect’ and ‘effect’; the misuse of ‘enormity’), thinks lovingly about her husband, Leo, mourns her dead parents, and despairs over the state of the environment, Trump’s presidency, mass shootings, and the historic genocides of indigenous people. ‘A lot of people think all I think about is pie,’ she thinks, ‘when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelising and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiralling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else.’

Most of the book is narrated in the past tense, even if the narrator is thinking about things that have just happened (in Ulysses Leopold Bloom’s monologues are often interrupted by the events around him, giving them an immediacy that can feel slightly phoney). The plot is meagre: nothing very dramatic happens until late in the book. The narrator’s car breaks down in the snow a couple of times and she is rescued. Her daughter Stacy, a contrary teenage vegan, runs away and sleeps out for a night. A MAGA-hat-wearing chickenfeed deliveryman bores her. Biographical details emerge slowly. We learn that she recovered from cancer a few years ago and that her family has subsequently been crippled by medical debt, that she spent some of her childhood in London (in her author’s notes Ellmann represents herself as a reluctant exile, saying she was brought to England from America ‘against her will’ when she was 13), that she gave up a job teaching history at a local community college when she realised her chronic shyness meant she would always hate it, that both her parents were academics (Ellmann’s father, Richard, was Joyce’s biographer, her mother, Mary, a celebrated Tennyson scholar). The unspooling of all of this is intercut with shorter sections, written in full sentences, describing the journey of a cougar that sets out across Ohio to find her stolen cubs.

Many novelists who favour excessively long sentences cheat, stitching clauses together with punctuation short of a full stop, or repeated words that become a refrain. László Krasznahorkai’s paragraph-long sentences are measured out with handfuls of semi-colons; in his single-sentence novel Solar Bones (2016), Mike McCormack used forward slashes to mark breaks in the text, as though he had attacked the page with a Stanley knife. Joyce used the word ‘yes’ (which he told Frank Budgen was ‘the female word’) repeatedly in Molly Bloom’s inner monologue. In Ducks, Newburyport the phrase ‘the fact that’ (which occurs 19,329 times) punctuates the narrator’s thoughts:

my memory’s worse than a sieve, the fact that it’s more like a funnel, and everything just spirals down the little chute and disappears somewhere, water spring, water-spout, ♫ I’m a little teapot ♫, measuring chickenfeed, the fact that another driverless car mowed down some woman and killed her, the fact that why would you let a ton of metal zoom around at thirty or forty miles an hour all by itself, with nobody at the controls, the fact that cars with drivers are bad enough, Laika, the fact that it’s terrible that poor dog was sent off into space like that

Descriptions of actions (‘measuring chicken feed’) take their place alongside half-remembered news reports and historical facts, speculation about the workings of memory and snatches of song, all of them yoked together by the phrase ‘the fact that’, which becomes a breathing space marking where a sentence might have ended. After a while you cease to notice it. The prose gains momentum recursively, as half rhymes and echoes of memory trigger the next associative stream. The effect is by turns infuriating, hypnotic and addictive.

Ellmann’s first six novels tempered their political seriousness and emotional intensity with a puckish flippancy, like Tristram Shandy rewritten by Stevie Smith. They had short, metafictionally playful chapters (a chapter called ‘Gail’s Mother’ from her second novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness, reads in its entirety: ‘The author feels no interest in Gail or her mother at the present time’) and were characterised by giddy changes of style, typographical exuberance (capitalisations, italicisations, exclamation marks) and a fondness for paratextual apparatus (appendices, indexes, glossaries). They didn’t have settings so much as backdrops. Recurring features included sexual frankness; dramatic changes in perspective from the micro (the lives of insects) to the macro (the cold expanse of the universe); subplots involving the betrayal of aged parents by a malign healthcare system; Angela Banner’s Ant and Bee children’s books (and bees in general); Revere Ware pots and pans; indifferent fathers (what she called in her previous novel, Mimi, ‘the great unknowing, unknowable American dad’) who are nonetheless adored; animals, and the overwhelming security of animal motherhood; bodily processes (especially menstruation and the menopause); the insularity of the English; the psychic wounds of childhood; academic institutions, often minor; recipes; the comic impersonality of the universe and the smallness of human lives; lists.

Many of these elements are present in Ducks, Newburyport, which feels at once more real – because less cartoony – and more sentimental than her earlier books, and, despite its scale (it is longer than all of them combined), smaller in scope. This is partly a result of the claustrophobia involved in spending nearly half a million words inside a single character’s head. But it’s also because the narrator is so much more earnest than those in her previous books. She’s curiously self-censoring – thinking of her bottom as her ‘sit-me-down-upon’, and unable to bring herself to even think, let alone utter, the Trumpian maxim ‘grab ’em by the ––’ – but polite enough to clarify any potential ambiguities of thought immediately. ‘You can’t really make a lot of banana bread at a time, on a commercial basis, or I can’t seem to, because it’s all about the ripeness of the bananas, cheerleaders, the fact that they need to be a little over-ripe, bananas not cheerleaders.’ Later she thinks that she ‘just imagined a Frenchman rolling some Scottish people along the road’. The inclusion of ‘just imagined’ here shows that it’s not really thought that’s being presented, but a mediated version of it, and Ellmann’s method confronts an inherent problem in trying to write about the mind directly: consciousness doesn’t really consist of language – or only of language. Wyndham Lewis criticised Joyce’s method for this reason, saying that Ulysses was a failure because Bloom was ‘abnormally wordy. He thought in words, not images, for our benefit, in a fashion as unreal, from the point of view of the strictest naturalist dogma, as a Hamlet soliloquy.’ But it’s difficult to see how he could have done anything else, and Ellmann endows her narrator with a language entirely appropriate to her personality: polite and self-consciously self-doubting.

For modernists, paying attention to what Beckett called ‘the within, all that inner space one never sees’ was intended as much to clear away the old as to make it new. In her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf argued that writers should strip away the extraneous stuff that the novel had accumulated around itself, and that marred the work of ‘materialist’ novelists like Wells and Galsworthy. Instead, she argued, they should record the ‘atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall’ and ‘trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness’. But in replacing externalities with internalities many modernist novels ended up as full of stuff as a Victorian drawing room, even if it was different stuff.

Ducks, Newburyport is full of clutter. There are some long lists that feel like they’ve been transposed from Ellmann’s earlier novels (brand names, cleaning products, types of pie, the contents of a fridge, various ways of cooking shrimp), synopses of films (often musicals) and actors’ careers, descriptions of internet fads, details of how many chickens are killed in America each year, an account of the objects used in a memory game. Halfway through the book the narrator thinks about Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru, who advises her followers to ‘hold every possession in your hands and decide if it gives you joy … if it does, you get to keep it, and if it doesn’t, you dump it.’ This strikes her as a fairly silly way of assessing what’s necessary in a home – ‘Scotch tape doesn’t give me any joy, I don’t think, but sometimes you need some’ – and it’s an equally useless way of deciding what’s important in fiction.

Roland Barthes said that descriptions that seem to ‘have no function’ in terms of plot or character development can nonetheless contribute to the ‘reality effect’ of a novel, and unnecessary detail is vital to Ellmann’s method. What’s most unusual about Ducks, Newburyport isn’t its length but the sustained attention it pays to the details of domestic life that usually go unwritten. That its maximalism feels like a provocation is partly because no one has paid this much attention to this kind of mind before. The intimacy it produces depends on recognition – you might well have the same flotsam and jetsam bumbling around your own mind – but the novel’s uncanniness is produced by repetition. As the pages turn and the layers build up, ideas, images, memories seep out, so that when they’re revisited hundreds of pages later you can’t quite recall if you’ve had the same thought before, or if Ellmann supplied it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.