Crises of Distraction in Ducks, Newburyport
by Hannah Karmin (Cornell University)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . .
—W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming”
In January of 1919 Yeats foretold, with dread, the beginning of a new era of history. The dissolution of the centre is a fecund literary frame of reference; indeed, Yeats’ poem is the titular referent for a number of influential authors, from Joan Didion to Chinua Achebe. In this vein, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) is a novel that is written on the precipice of crisis. Unlike her forebears, though, Ellmann’s text elides these epoch-defining proclamations. We are all much too busy being distracted. Ducks is an experimental novel of (mostly) one sentence that documents a contemporary crisis of distraction so engrossing that we do not have time to acknowledge its magnitude. Just so, Ellmann’s unnamed narrator — an Ohio mother of four — thinks “the fact that I have stomach trouble every day now and I don’t know why, the fact that I practically overdose on Pepto-Bismol, the fact that I am completely falling apart, cinnamon” (79). A self-centred, Yeatsian acknowledgement of catastrophe is sandwiched between complaints of indigestion and a recipe’s forgotten ingredient. Ellmann’s experimental narrative techniques manifest and explore the consequences of our contemporary crisis of distraction.
How is one to read in the so-called “attention economy”? According to Joshua Cohen: sporadically. In his non-fiction novel, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction (2019), Cohen makes the following appeal to his reader:
[I]f you read at the pace of most Americans, which is approximately two hundred words per minute, then you’ve been reading for approximately six minutes by now, though—if you’re like most Americans in another respect—there’s also a roughly 50 percent chance you’ve already taken one break to check your email, and a roughly 75 percent chance you’ve taken two breaks if you’ve been reading on your phone. (6)
Cohen’s anxiety belies a significant shift in the ways we engage with literature. The practice of rapidly shifting attention between tasks, ideas, and stimuli is gruelling. It makes literary texts feel like an anachronism, rather than a respite. The unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport, echoes Cohen when she thinks about “the fact that people really don’t read much nowadays, well, not books anyway, the fact that I know they read stuff on their phones and all, the fact that everybody just watches TV and looks at porno pics” (872-73). The attention economy operates under the assumption that every present moment must be maximized, optimized to produce the greatest possible quantity of information, productivity, pleasure.
Unlike Cohen, who wants to disrupt his reader’s patterns of attention explicitly, Ellmann’s narrator lingers in a state of constant absorption. Trapped in a continual present, the narrator begins making cinnamon rolls on page 33 and then seemingly forgets about her baking project. Her thoughts take in:
the fact that things taste so much better once you’ve forgotten the effort of cooking them, the fact that it’s like forgetting labor pains, or the effort involved in painting a room, the fact that wallpapering’s worse, the fact that with wallpaper you really need a professional, the fact that you don’t want all those bubbles and wrinkles all over the place, bumps, blotches, the fact that I would probably wallpaper myself to the wall, the fact that now I’ve forgotten what I came in the pantry for (49).
It is not until page 95 that we learn the identity of the truant ingredient: eggs. The narrator’s absorption, punctured when she realizes she does not remember what she is supposed to be doing, represents a crisis of attentive temporality; even the recent past is too easily forgotten, forsaken in favor of present stimuli and irretrievable for future consideration. The narrator’s present is utterly subsumed by each new thought, just like Cohen’s reader, whose present is utterly consumed with each crumb of information meted out by her email or phone.
To read Ducks is to rebel against the constraints of the attention economy; the act requires that we take Jenny Odell’s advice and learn How to Do Nothing (2019). Reading Ducks enacts Odell’s prescription that we learn to escape from a reality “where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living” (15). The unprofitable act of reading a novel disrupts our contemporary state of perpetual absorption and resituates the reader within a conscious experience of duration. The title of Scott Bradfield’s review of Ducks for The Washington Post — “Reading Ducks, Newburyport is Mentally Taxing and Physically Exhausting”— captures the affective and habitual intervention. For Ducks to yield benefits, you must surrender to the experience of reading. The awkward angles in which you place your neck, the constant shifting of positions to accommodate a new page, the abstention from household tasks and text messages, the nagging sense that you should be being more productive: all of these experiences allow Ducks to hack the attention economy.
Stylistically, the narrator’s repetition of the phrase “the fact that” represents another kind of insurrection: an insurrection against established dicta of what constitutes good writing. Readers of Chapter III: “Elementary Principles of Composition, in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, are instructed, as a thirteenth premise, to “Omit needless words”:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts…
In especial the expression the fact that should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs. (68)
“The fact that” is a writer’s shortcut for implying causality without needing to specify the precise elements of that causal connection. In eschewing precision, the style of narration that dominates Ducks directly contradicts tasteful prose, in Strunk and White’s definition. Ducks does not strive to be “vigorous” or to write in a “plain English style” (1). Instead, Ellmann holds up a mirror to a reality that cannot be made coherent through vigour or simplicity. With the loss of formal punctuation comes a loss of any logical continuity that would structure the narrator’s perception, her reality rendered utterly paratactic.
The dislocated reality of Ducks is particularly manifest in the novel’s persistent rejection of linear temporality. The narrator, instead, lives in a timeless mode which she eventually confronts:
the fact that I’m beginning to think we’re all too stuck on the present, just because it’s right here, the fact that nobody looks ahead enough, the fact that it’s kind of crazee if you think about it, the fact that people are gone on the past too, the fact that I don’t know about chimpanzees, the fact that do they sit around reminiscing too, the fact that historians say we can learn from it, from the past, not a chimp, but there’s a cost, because if you’re like me, the past gets you down, the fact that meanwhile it’s the future we should be worrying about, and I cling to the few certainties there are about it, the fact that some things are definite, like
the sun will rise and set every day
absolutely without fail
the moon will come and go too (635)
The narrator believes “we’re all too stuck on the present” and the past, while we neglect the future, the tense “we should be worrying about.” This is an important passage. Excepting the lioness monologues and a few section breaks, it contains the first paragraph break for 635 pages. Upon acknowledging a temporal crisis, the narrator breaks out of her unpunctuated, maundering style and learns to enjamb.
In the pages that follow, the narrator continues to think in lists, but uses line breaks instead of “the fact that”. The litany contains examples of “definite” things, each on their own line. For a reader, this is invigorating, freeing. The paratactic, agrammatical narration resumes on page 663, but, for a total of 28 pages, the reader is treated to an imagistic poem. Affectively, the list is a reprieve in verse from the oppression of incessant prose. Theoretically, the positioning of the narrator’s temporal realization before a radical break in form emphasizes the importance of the conclusion that “we’re all too stuck on the present.”
If we accept Cathy Caruth’s definition of the novel as “the art form of questioning time” (2010: 1088), Ducks is a significant new contribution to the form. Ellmann slyly acknowledges this by updating Proust’s madeleine — that symbol for memory’s affective, disrupted temporality — with a quick simile: “madeleines are like little memory sticks, but when you bite into one you get closure” (391). The novel is the genre and attention the cognitive mechanism through which temporal crises can be overcome.
In Ducks, Newburyport, the sense of temporal crisis and the cognitive coping mechanisms that seek to alleviate those crises are uniquely human. While the repetitive and meandering “the fact that”s characterize the narrator’s lived experience of unconsummated thoughts, ideas, and conclusions, a local mountain lioness periodically interrupts the primary narrator. Determined to feed and protect her cubs, the secondary feline protagonist forms a marked juxtaposition with the atemporal existence of the primary human narrator. The mountain lioness lives in a mode of “alertness” encapsulated in her refrain that “all of life is really recoil and leap, leap and recoil.” This mountain lioness thinks of life in the third person, as a series of decisive, present actions. Though the human sections of Ducks aim to reproduce the main character’s interior experience of time exactly, the actual content of those thoughts rarely dwell in the present, but, rather, are full of memories of the past and considerations for the future. The human narrator’s present is paralyzed in a confusion of competing temporalities, some real and some merely hypothetical.
The mountain lion, on the other hand, represents a complete unity of present thought and present action without recursion into temporal confusion. Her style is composed of short sentences, terse punctuation, and lean paragraphs. Just so, she hunts a boar with conviction and competency:
The ledge on which she stood gave her a perfect point from which to pounce. Recoil and leap. His back was broken immediately on impact, his piercing shrieks finally stilled.
She didn’t pause to eat, no point in delay. The kittens were unprotected, and here was a rare treat. She picked him up by the scruff, as she would her own infants, and dragged the boar’s large, sagging form awkwardly along the ground. (560-1)
Ellmann uses the mountain lioness to put the strange and illogical contemporary human experience of the present into absurd relief. While the narrator is unable to harness her attention or temporal experience, the mountain lion is in complete control of both attention and time.
At the end of the novel, humans capture and imprison the mountain lioness in the local zoo. Confined, she realizes that the same temporal rules of existence no longer apply, “there was no recoil and leap, leap and recoil, here.” Still, she expresses her agony in complete sentences and decisive conclusions. Nevertheless, imprisonment does force the mountain lion to leave her simple present verb tense. Unable to act, she switches to the conditional in her final contributions to the novel, resolving that, though unable to care for her kittens now, still:
She would love them and save them and feed them and teach them and never let them go. She would lap her cubs and love them and never let them go. (947)
In our contemporary crisis of distraction, the present is confused by impositions on our freedom to fuse thought and action. The human structures of civilization—politics, economics, family—all conspire to encroach upon the present. In the world of Ducks, things fall apart and the centre loses hold, but no human has the time or attention to notice. To return to Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the experience of crisis involves temporal disruption:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The present experience of crisis is overwhelmed by the anticipation of a “surely” imminent cataclysmic future. In other words, the centre holds. Just for a little longer than expected.
CITATION: Hannah Karmin, “Now ‘the fact that’ then: Crises of Distraction in Ducks, Newburyport“, Alluvium, 8.2 (2020): n. pag. Web. 13 July 2020, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.2.05
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Hannah Karmin is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Cornell University. She received a BA from Yale University in 2012 and completed a post-baccalaureate in Classics at Columbia University in 2013. Her dissertation, titled “Lapsed Attentions, Classical and Modern”, investigates patterns of attention and distraction in James Joyce and Homer, Virginia Woolf and Euripides, and H.D. and Callimachus. She is currently working on a final chapter on contemporary, feminine (in)attention in the works of Anne Carson and Lucy Ellmann.
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Bradfield, Scott. “Reading Ducks, Newburyport Is Mentally Taxing — and Physically Exhausting” The Washington Post, 11 September 2019 (accessed 1 April 2020): https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/reading-ducks-newburyport-is-mentally-taxing–and-physically-exhausting/2019/09/10/6d34146c-d405-11e9-9610-fb56c5522e1c_story.html
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