Neurons could only be seen under a microscope. That’s how it was until Lucy Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport (Automatic), a novel of colossal size and ambition that uses literature to delve into the brain circuits of its protagonist, an American housewife whose synapses seem to be on fire. The trivial and the enigmatic, the rational and the unconscious go through his head. One thought gives way to the other in a flash: the cakes that the unsung heroine lovingly bakes, the climate crisis, the films of Meryl Streep, the pile of laundry, the families dying in Syria, her husband, Donald and Melania Trump, the Bistro Chartier in Paris, taxes , the argument of Air Force Onethe obsession of millennia for his cell phones, the cancer he has overcome, his four children.
His inner monologue consists of a single sentence spanning 1,200 pages (or eight separate sentences, by some counting). If size isn’t an issue, it’s surprising that more has been said about its expansion than its content. It even sparked some controversy when it was a finalist for the 2019 Booker Prize (Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo won). “Long books scare me too. I’m an incredibly slow reader,” said the author, who was born 65 years ago in Evanston (Illinois), via video conference from Edinburgh, where she has lived for two decades. “My previous novels were no more than 200 pages, but this one wouldn’t have worked. To do justice to human thought, it had to go on and on, until the reader could immerse himself in the text, swim in it.” She wonders if describing a woman’s inner workings had anything to do with the alarmism triggered. “A man has the right to take up as much space as he wants. If a woman does that, it’s considered rude,” she claims.
The enormous length of the book caused controversy. “A man has the right to take up as much space as he wants. When a woman does that, she’s considered rude,” she says.
This experimental book, which alternates the staccato speech of its protagonist with the story of a lioness who has lost her cubs, seems like an anomaly in the landscape of Anglo-Saxon fiction, which is becoming increasingly standardized to the standards of university creative writing workshops to correspond : “It is becoming increasingly difficult to find an author who has not taken one. They imposed many rules on them. I believe that writing is learned by writing. Writing is a game and you have to be able to play freely. At this rate, novels will one day be written by computers.”
Ellmann employs an epic scale and a free indirect style that seems indebted to James Joyce (his father Richard Ellmann was a biographer and specialist in the Irish author), complemented by a postmodern taste for lists and pop culture, and a literary rhythm that shines off to drink from the minimalism in the music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. As in his compositions, there is a motif in the book that is repeated ad nauseam: the phrase “the fact that” that precedes each of its protagonist’s outbursts. “There’s a connection,” admits the author, who listened extensively to Glass while writing the book.
“The United States is a place built on violence that also prides itself on how decent and respectable it is. I find it unbearable”
Rather than sign off on an eloquent monologue, like so much fictional evidence of human thought in recent literature, Ellmann prefers to reflect on the perpetual wandering to which every head seems doomed, the neurotic meditation that takes place in leisure, daydreaming in those that clarity and stupidity coexist. Its protagonist embodies the average middle-aged, Midwestern American who lives in a swing state like Ohio, which is neither red nor blue on the election map. “I wanted to write about an archetypal white woman, but I didn’t want to cast a protagonist that I hated, a Trump supporter. He’s a character I don’t entirely approve of, but he has good drive. It’s someone who thinks about the world but doesn’t know what to do to change it,” he says.
Reading the book one wonders if it is a literary double of Ellmann, although in the inscription she warns that this work is only “pure conjecture”. “I didn’t want it to be interpreted autobiographically,” he clarifies. Shouldn’t she be seen as someone who this 65-year-old Illinois-born author could become if she hadn’t moved to the UK with her family as a child? “Yeah, that’s what I had in mind when I designed the character,” he admits. “The book stems from a nostalgic desire to return to the United States that I felt for many years. It’s already a part of the past: it’s become an impossible place I never want to go back to. For what reason? “Because of the violence. It’s a place built on violence that boasts about how decent and respectable it is. I find it unbearable. And I could never afford health insurance.”
“Not enough is written about home when most of us spend most of our time”
His book contains a disapproving look at the country of his birth, which he says he no longer feels (“or only verbally”). The tension between the individual and community, a classic theme of American repertoire, stands out in the alienation of its protagonist. “It’s a society that doesn’t value the individual, despite what is often said. It’s a huge country where all places look the same and all behave the same,” says Ellmann. If you’ve chosen the interior of a home that smells like freshly baked cookies (and the worst of oppression), it’s because you wanted to explore the domestic realm. “Not enough is written about home when that’s where most of us spend most of our time.”
Some of his earlier books, unpublished in Spanish, seem to defend a kind of global and somewhat dystopian matriarchy. “No, it’s a utopia. Men should shut up and let us solve all problems,” laughs the author. Does that seem plausible to you in the medium term? “I don’t understand why not. There are a lot of perfectly nice men out there. You will already have realized how awful the male sex in general is. Everyone knows men should never have had that much power.”
“Ducks, Newburyport”. Lucie Ellman. Translation by Enrique Maldonado. Automatically. 1,272 pages. 36 euros.
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