The Reality Effect

Jon Day

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
    Galley Beggar, 1030 pp, £13.99, September, ISBN 978 1 913111 98 4

The mind, 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, orI 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.