Ducks, Newburyport

I didn’t finish my Book Bingo posts — and maybe I will sometime but maybe I won’t — but participating in Book Bingo got me back in the habit of reading instead of aimlessly browsing the internet, at least some of the time. So I may continue writing about the occasional book.

Confession time: even though David Foster Wallace turned out to be a real piece of shit in a lot of ways, I still love Infinite Jest. My excuse is I read it when I was 20, possibly the ideal age for having your mind absolutely blown by a big, indulgently maximalist novel that’s equal parts sincere and irreverent, serious and playful. But the book has also become shorthand for a kind of “lit-bro” mindset that I feel defensive about whenever I mention it. In a way, I’m looking for a new favorite book, and ideally one with less baggage (between its covers and in the minds of people I might mention it to) than Infinite Jest has. I’m not 20 anymore so it’s unlikely that any present-day reading will have the effect on me that Infinite Jest did. But the search is a good excuse to read daunting, idiosyncratic, ambitious novels.

Ducks, Newburyport is one such book. It’s not, I think, my new favorite. But it’s almost completely unlike anything I’ve ever read, and it made me think a lot of thoughts.

Let me start with a run-down of the superficial, attention-getting characteristics of Ducks, Newburyport that you’ll probably encounter immediately if you look up anything about it on the internet: It’s almost a thousand pages longA lightly bowdlerized and editorialized glossary of abbreviations (“POS” and “POTUS” are rendered as “Piece of [Scat]” and “Purveyor of Totally Unprecedented Sleaze,” respectively) pushes the length over 1,000 pages.

and almost all of those pages consist of the interior monologue of an Ohio housewife which is punctuated by the phrase “the fact that” in lieu of any full stops besides the one on page 988.

The stream of consciousness is occasionally, and relatively briefly, broken up by more conventional prose describing the journey of a mountain lion through the unnamed narrator’s environs. The purposeful terseness of these sections stands in stark contrast to the anxiety-ridden torrent of the main narrative, in the nine hundred or so pages of which (as noted by an excellent podcast episode about the book) about four things happen.

It’s hard to read a book like Ducks, Newburyport without either giving up a hundred pages in or starting to ask yourself questions like What is this book trying to do? and What’s the point of the unusual structure of this thing? and, like, What even is a novel, anyway, man? And though I opened this post with Infinite Jest because I think Ducks, Newburyport’s heft necessarily invites comparison to other hefty, maximalist novels, I hesitate to call Ducks maximalist just because it is actually very stylistically homogenous. It’s just big. But there’s a subversiveness and an audacity in spending so much time in the thoughts of this one everywoman as she struggles with the quotidian stresses of raising children and baking tarts and psychologically coping with being an American woman in the late twenty-teens. It suggests that with enough attention, any person can be an epic hero whose struggles warrant a weighty doorstopper of a tome. But, aside from Ducks, we don’t often get a chance to read such a book.

I am not good at spotting and analyzing literary devices, so if Ducks, Newburyport employs any subtle ones, I didn’t pick up on them. But the naturally cyclic, obsessive thought patterns of the anxious person (to which I am no stranger) introduce a natural continuity and some thematic through-lines to a story that might otherwise be unreadably shapeless.

So: Ducks, Newburyport is engaging despite its narrative not really having an “arc”. Its flouting of conventions makes it what it is, and the mountain lion sections, effective as they are as a foil for the primary narrative, do feel like a bit of a concession to the artifice that’s the water most novels swim in.Ducks, Newburyport is all artifice too, of course. It purports to be the inner monologue of a person who’s not the author; how could it not be? But one of its greatest achievements is that it doesn’t feel like it is.

All this may be why the conclusion of the novel was kind of a weird letdown, despite pulling together a lot of threads in an actually very narratively satisfying way. My initial reaction was: Hell yeah! The payoff, at last! But then later, the fact that there was a payoff started to feel incongruous with the rest of the book.

When evaluating how “believable” a work of fiction is, I tend to stick to a sort of analogue of the anthropic principle. Sure, the events in a story may be improbable. But for many stories, that very improbability is why the story is remarkable, and thus, why it’s being told in the first place. Until its last hundred pages, though, Ducks, Newburyport makes something truly novel, no pun intended, out of events that don’t feel meticulously and purposefully constructed and arranged. For me, the tidiness of the ending counterproductively reined in the glorious, messy sprawl of what came before it. In an ordinary novel, it would have been an unambiguous triumph. The problem is that Ducks, Newburyport is not an ordinary novel.