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Reading ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ is mentally taxing — and physically exhausting

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In our media-saturated age, it may take as much dedication to read a lengthy and challenging book as it does to compose one. Writers should experiment with the novel’s limits and conventions, of course, but then readers have to do their job.

They might start with “Ducks, Newburyport,” by Lucy Ellmann, the 1,000-page single sentence that was just shortlisted for the Booker Prize. After two weeks of embracing (and being embraced by) this monumental novel, I must frankly admit that I did not always live up to its expectations. And, perhaps, “Ducks” didn’t always live up to mine, either.

Just physically, it requires work. Even after many hours of turning pages, I still haven’t discovered the best way to read a book that is almost as heavy as my dog. (I have a small dog.) I tried holding it upright as I would any normal book — but that put a lot of undue stress on my upper musculature. (And I’m sorry to report that my upper musculature isn’t much to write home about, especially since I turned 60.) Then I tried balancing it on the edge of a large throw pillow in my lap, but that meant bending my neck and spine in weird ways and resulted in a backache.

Regularly shifting the book’s placement (and my posture) every few pages brought additional lapses in concentration — and maintaining concentration when you read this book is difficult enough. In fact, I’ll warn you right now: If you have trouble reading for more than five minutes without checking your smartphone, you probably shouldn’t bother.

Most of all, the book requires patience and good cheer. Otherwise you may not find your way through the continual and often exasperating redundancies that occur on every one of this book’s pages. Because “Ducks” is not (as I originally expected) composed of one very long complex periodic sentence, in which actions develop sequentially. Rather, it’s a compound sentence that unfolds as a list, each new idea introduced by the same phrase: “the fact that.”

This creates a collagelike, sometimes random and sometimes not, postmodern accounting of “facts” as they occur in the mind (I guess) of an unnamed (I think) middle-aged female protagonist — a work-at-home pie-and-pastry-baking mother of four. The list accumulates data — from the protagonist’s memories of her parents, her first (unsuccessful) marriage and her current (successful) one, through reflections on parenting, political turmoil and the historic subjugation of Native Americans, along with incoming news reports from the Pluto flyover, the latest school shootings and the always-mounting manifestations of climate collapse. Meanwhile, our protagonist produces pies, delivers them to restaurants, makes the standard mommy-runs to and from the school and mall and prepares for a cocktail party that she dreads. This is because while she doesn’t mind inundating herself with all these random thoughts, in front of other people, she’s shy.

The novel bombards its reader with info-bites — funny, sad, thoughtful, angry, confused, apocalyptic — with the ceaseless regularity of a combustion engine. Sometimes the repetition can drive a weak mind (like mine) a bit mad, but every time I was about to put the book down and walk away, I would be struck again by the protagonist’s bright, unpretentious, ironic voice, such as when she reflects on the pleasures and impossibilities of raising children:

“the fact that you have all these kids as an expression of love, and then the kids start killing your love with all their needs, all the diapers and arguments and blocked eustachian tubes, and busting in on your love life every chance they get, just for a glass of milk and more chocolate chip cookies, the fact that cookies are the real passion-killer, Plutonium isotopes, Gameboys, the fact that maybe there’s a biological purpose to it, the fact that maybe the current kids have an instinct to prevent more kids being born, like eaglets or something, or cuckoos in the nest”

The narrative voice that drives this inexhaustible and exhausting accumulation of “facts” is surprisingly interesting, engaging and inventive. Despite the world’s horrors that are always already moving in on her (and us) from every direction, she continually drives herself (and us) forward with a deep, abiding sense of hope that, somehow, we will all be saved from drowning, just as her mother was saved as a young girl while feeding the ducks in Newburyport. Ellmann’s fictional world reminds us, over and over, that, yeah, we get it. We live here, too, lady. We feel engulfed, every day when we wake up and every night when we go to bed. Engulfed, engulfed, engulfed. The world just doesn’t quit, does it?

“Ducks” will almost certainly be compared with other monumentally difficult books, such as “Ulysses” (Ellmann’s father wrote the standard biography of James Joyce — so big, complex novels may be part of her DNA). Or perhaps, more appropriately, William Gaddis’s hilarious novel about failing downward in a country full of people failing upward, “JR.” But it’s possible to read those books as actual stories.

My biggest failure as a reader of “Ducks” (and I’ll have to leave it to posterity to decide whether this is my failure or the book’s) was in trying to discern a “front story.” I steadfastly read forward seeking a way through the facts to any form of narrative sequence. At one point, when the narrator considers making a “run out to Zyker’s right now . . . we need soy sauce,” I actually leaped out of my recliner and shouted, “Yes, please!”

There are efforts to ease the barrage — and every few dozen pages or so, the reader is escorted on little fugue-narratives (including periods and paragraph indentations) concerning a local mountain lion who, like the protagonist, wants to enjoy her life and children in a world that isn’t dying. But these are the book’s least interesting passages and feel like a gimmick designed to help tie up the story before we reach the final pages.

Early in this novel (page 323!) the protagonist thinks: “there’s maybe too much emphasis on facts these days, or maybe there are just too many facts,” and our collective inability to manage the world’s multitudinous and horrific information is clearly what this book is all about.

But then maybe we don’t need reminding what a mess we’re drowning in. Or maybe it’s just too late.

Scott Bradfield is the author of, most recently, “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”

By Lucy Ellmann,

Biblioasis. 1034 pp. $22.95

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