The fact that it has begun, my quest to read the shortlisted Booker books before the winner is announced on October 14, the fact it would have helped greatly had I actually read one before I began this project, but alas. Not one to back down from a challenge, I have started with Ducks, Newburyport. Take that, Salman Rushdie and your middling 416-page Quichotte.
The first thing you are likely to hear about Ducks is that it is big. Very, very big. If Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss was alive today we would all be terrified, because not only would the good doctor be more than 250 years old, but he also wasn’t a real person, which at the least would give new meaning to what constitutes a “vivid” character in fiction. Assuming we could animate the fictional doctor and advance him into the modern world, he might be inclined to say that Ducks, Newburyport was written so that the word “tome” could exist. For Ducks certainly is an “especially large book.” It is not the largest book I have read—the unabridged Les Misérables has a permanent grip on that accomplishment—but its size looms large. If it wins the Booker it would eclipse Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries as the longest winner.
Everything else you’ve heard about the novel is as advertised: it’s a rambling monologue, broken up by passages about a lioness cougar and her cubs. In the middle of all this muddle there are moments of sharp observation, ones that feel familiar, for example, to parents of teenagers.
The fact they all seem to have pet rabbits or miniature dogs, and cars and smartphones, and they start the day by drinking big cups of Starbucks coffee, the fact I don’t know how they get hold of those drinks though, since they never seem to leave the house…the fact they’re too busy doing their smoky eyes, and handing out advice like “friendship is a two-way thing” and “everybody has their sucky days.”
Or that feels familiar to Trump haters.
The fact that Trump wants to take insurance coverage away from 630,000 Ohioans who took up Obamacare last year, and if he gets away with it, some of those poor souls are going to die.
The Clintons aren’t spared, either.
The fact that Bill Clinton’s always trying to bite women’s lips, the fact that he couldn’t keep his eyes off Melania at the inauguration…the fact that being married to Bill Clinton’s a whole different ball-game…the fact that Hillary must have known Bill was no picnic when they got married, the fact I don’t like her much but there was nobody better to vote for.
Etc. Etc. Etc. The sheer amount of information is a remarkable feat, no matter what you feel about the topics. There are discursives on Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie books. Passages on “affect” and “effect.” Commentary on the word “pulchritudinous” and how it means the opposite of what it sounds like. On and on I could go, and I could probably just make something up and have at least a fighting chance I’ll be right when I get to the next 700 pages.
Acting as a kind of bridge to these thoughts are random non-sequiturs.
And I hate parties, as guest or host, the fact that I don’t know why anybody likes them, the fact that it’s hard to believe they truly do, but somebody must or there wouldn’t be any parties, which would suit me fine, cinnamon rolls, SAT scores, USA, PFOA, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox news, snow foxes, boxes, possums, sand dabs, sand dollars, silver dollar piece, fifty-cent coin.
And on to the next “fact that” we go, for 988 pages. (And don’t forget to check out the glossary and appendix!) On the surface nothing could be less promising; it sounds like the recipe for boredom once the novelty burns away. Surprisingly, however, like the movie Groundhog Day it doesn’t get old. I might not agree with all the observations, and I was frankly a little tired of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the length is intimidating, but there is no denying the book works.
What we cannot say is that the book is unique. The cover contains this quote from the Booker Prize Jury citation: “Unstoppable…like nothing you’ve ever read before.” Unstoppable, maybe. But like nothing I’ve read before? No. How quickly we forget Ulysses and Molly Bloom’s brilliant conclusion to the book. It’s one thing for a hack like me not to acknowledge Ulysses, but it’s another for the Booker Prize committee to overlook it. And there are other similarities to Joyce’s masterpiece, the main one being the inanity of our free-range thought process. But Ducks is more similar to a Jack Kerouac or even a Henry Miller stream-of-consciousness novel than to Ulysses, which really was unique.
None of this takes away from the brilliance of Ducks, Newburyport. A novel does not have to be unique or comparable to the best books ever to be a brilliant piece of work. Saying Ulysses is better than Ducks is not a slight to Ducks but a testament to how great and ground-breaking Ulysses was.
What worries me about Ducks—and all the other nominees, for that matter—is whether the committee will judge it not as a work of art but as a statement of the times. All the books deserve to be judged as works of art, not on the basis of the slant of the beliefs contained within.
In the case of Ducks, in too many reviews and quotes I see a common theme: here is modern America, unfettered, unfiltered. The subtext is clear enough. Here is an anti-Trump, anti-gun, anti-this-or-that book for the times. Here is what it “means to be a woman in Trump’s America.” The book is a “stunning and brutal portrait of social and psychological dysfunction in Donald Trump’s America.” It is “devastating and necessary.” Or “A wildly ambitious and righteously angry portrait of contemporary America.”
All of those things may or may not be true, we may or may not be living in an all-too-real dystopia, there may or may not be darker times ahead. Those of us looking to escape reality—or at least have it numbed—will find no solace in Ducks. While a writer is under no obligation to write a novel that ignores the times, in general it is never wise to infuse didacticism into art. And while art does has a history of subverting culture and its discontents, it also has a history of existing for its own sake.
No matter the subject matter or its length, the question remains: is Ducks, Newburyport “the best novel of the year?” Does it deserve to be the favourite? I am not so sure. To be fair I’m only 200 or so pages in, but for all its technical achievements and depth, Lucy Ellmann’s tome has the feel of a book that will be more known more for its style rather than for its substance.
In other words, the perfect book to win the Booker Prize.