Thursday, April 23, 2020

Ducks, Newburyport: The Most Unique Novel I've Ever Read

Well, this sure was a doozy -- though of course that was fully expected. I picked up Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, a thousand-plus-page, dense-as-hell, stream-of-consciousness experimental novel, with full knowledge of what I was in for. Still, 50 pages in, my only thought was "Wow, is she really going to keep this up for another 950 pages?" And she did! But once I found my footing, I thoroughly enjoyed every word. It's the most unique thing I've ever read, and every ounce of effort I put into this book was rewarded.

See, books teach you how to read them. And for this book, learning how to read it early on is crucial. Soon, once you find your rhythm, and realize each "the fact that" is the start of a new "sentence," your mind starts conflating that phrase with a break, and pretty soon, you just blur right past it and read like normal. Also, for me, it was important to take this book in slow gulps, only a few pages at a time. I just did my best to concentrate and not space out, and when I found myself starting to space out, that's when I knew it was time to put it down for the day. You have to be in the right mind to read this book. I did best when I was well caffeinated. All this is basically why it took me more than two months to read. But also one of the reasons I enjoyed it, and now miss my daily 20 pages or so.

So what is this thing, exactly? Essentially, it's a thousand pages of musings and word associations narrated by an Ohio housewife who is busy baking pies. She offers thoughts on pollution in rivers, Trump's narcissism, her kids, her mother's illness, her own illness, Ohio history, her childhood, her husband who is an engineer for bridges, and about a million other things. Along the way, periodically, micro-stories emerge — she gets stranded with a flat tire on a very cold day, there's a MAGA guy named Ronny who delivers her chicken feed who constantly makes her nervous, her oldest daughter briefly runs away from home. And there are many more. And about every 100 pages or so, there's a short snippet of story about a mountain lion roaming around Ohio — this story eventually intersects with the main story, too.

So why read this wall of words? Why "torture" myself? The hipster in me would say I've always enjoyed difficult, against-the-grain novels — it gives you a sense of accomplishment (and superiority?), etc. But I wanted to read this because it was just so different. Many reviewers have pointed out that it's a near-perfect finger-on-the-pulse-of-our-modern-times. And that's certainly true, too.

If you're up for a challenge, give it a try. But understand you're going to need some patience. This won't be a book you fly through in a week. Just relax and enjoy it for what it is.


  1. I haven't read Ducks, Newburyport but this -- "See, books teach you how to read them." -- makes me want to. Not many authors (or their editors!) know how to be good teachers, which is why so many books (particularly those attempting to innovate) fail.

    I've already passed on Ducks, Newburyport a couple times; taking it out of the library most definitely sounded like a bad choice since I suspected I'd need to read just as you did, in small chunks. Maybe a pandemic is just the time for those twenty pages (or minutes) a day about musing, something I think we're all doing more of than usual? Sometimes those small-chunk readings are the most memorable, the most appreciated.

    All of which is to say thank you.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment - couldn't agree with you more that so many "experimental" books are just too clever by half. Ducks, Newburyport certainly is not. Also, I've talked with others who have read it who have agreed that it's a near-perfect quarantine read for reasons you mention - that those short musings can often be super impactful and most memorable! Happy reading! :)