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The joys of reading a Really, Really Big Book

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on February 21, 2020 Published on February 21, 2020

Grey matter: Over and above the considerable labours of writing a really big book, publishing one’s tough, too   -  ISTOCK.COM

Author Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport may not have won the Booker. But the novel — all 1,000-plus pages of it — leaps from small disappointments to global catastrophes without breaking a sweat

Shortly after I finished Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (shortlisted for the 2019 Booker, and winner of the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize), I learned that her father was a renowned James Joyce scholar. Speaking as someone who has tried and failed to finish reading Joyce’s Ulysses (or indeed, reach the halfway mark) several times, I must express my gratitude that Ellmann’s novel proved vastly more readable. Moreover, the very first page features the curiously haunting line “To be woken, biffed in the face by the paw of a sleeping kitten” (Joyce would approve; he wrote about cats at length, both in Ulysses and in his letters to his beloved grandson Stephen). This happens to me thrice a week, typically, but I could never have expressed it in such an elegant, disarming, sonorous way.

At 1,020 pages, Ducks, Newburyport is one of the longest novels in recent Booker history — and undoubtedly the most idiosyncratic. It consists of eight sentences in total, the bulk of them really one long, long sentence. The narrative follows an unnamed ex-professor (and mother of four) from Ohio as she ruminates about everything under the sun — her marriage, the prospect of one of her children hating her, Trump, the unabated and ongoing assault on the environment, and so on. To call it stream-of-consciousness would be tethering it to a history Ellmann is not overly influenced by. The truth is Ducks, Newburyport is that rarity: A true original that leaps from small, intimate disappointments to global catastrophes without breaking a sweat. Sample this passage, where the narrator’s doomsday musings soon give way to anxiety about her daughter Stacy’s resentment towards her. By the time she’s talking about releasing a family of terrapins in a wrong place, eco-anxiety and empty nest syndrome have collapsed into one another.

“(...) the fact that Ben says everybody on earth will soon be starving or suffocating or dying of SARS or Ebola or H5N1, the fact that H5N1 only has to mutate a few more times and we’re all goners, so maybe it was all for nothing, human achievement, but before that happens, we still have to do our taxes, and Leo needs to fix the garage door, the fact that it keeps sticking, missing button, bathroom grouting, the fact that Stacy would probably approve of a global pandemic, as long as it included us, her nearest and dearest, the fact that I don’t know why we released our poor little terrapins into the pond at Northwestern, the fact that we thought they’d be happy there, free, the fact that nobody ever told us they were tropical terrapins...”

Ducks, Newburyport, then, is a Really, Really Big Book (RRBB), marked not just by girth but also how easily the reader gets involved in its little thought experiments, its rapidly expansive vision (in some cases, its mythology). RRBBs are a dying tribe — in the modern era, one can think of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Richard House’s The Kills and William Vollmann’s Imperial (notably, the only non-fiction book that immediately comes to mind) as similarly ambitious. There’s this one thing that all of these books do. Simply put, they teach you how to read them as you go along, until the reader is intimately aware of every eccentricity, every running gag, every little narrative tic or gesture that holds sacred meaning within the confines of the text. (It’s like the moment when a long-running TV show’s most famous joke or one-liner makes an appearance in the grand finale: Instead of being undercut, the humour is enhanced by the fact that our journey is about to end.) See how Ellmann, for instance, mimics the rhythms of a perfectly ordinary day in her narrator’s life before, suddenly, Walter Matthau and then Marlon Brando and then various Jane Austen novels materialise in her thoughts. The thing to understand is that it’s a perfectly quotidian intrusion, apropos nothing at all. Ergo, they are placed abruptly and without context or explanation, in the middle of routine tasks the narrator is eager to be distracted from.

“(...)the fact that, seriously, my life’s all shopping, chopping, slicing, splicing, spilling, frilling, fooling, cooling, heating, boiling, broiling, frying, and macrophages, Tuesday, dentist, trash, mush, the fact that if I’d known what I was in for, like all the work involved, the endless chaos, before I had them, well, Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte, helping them with their homework, and having to listen to all their groans, and screams, and sighs, and their Gameboys, and dance numbers, and all the unexplained bangs and crashes, On the Waterfront, or letting the cats in and out, out and in, in and out, out and in, and tending the chickens some more, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice...”

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Over and above the considerable labours of writing an RRBB, publishing one’s tough, too. The cost of printing alone, for a book that runs into 1,000-plus pages, is significant. The financial risks involved with publishing a doorstopper aside, publishers today also want shorter novels (250-350 pages is the most popular length in India currently) to accommodate shorter attention spans — and competition from smartphones and streaming services. Ducks, Newburyport was published by Galley Beggar Press, a small firm based out of Norwich, UK. Husband-and-wife duo Sam Jordison and Eloise Miller began operations only in 2012. When their breakthrough title, Eimear McBride’s novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, was nominated for the Bailey’s Prize in early 2014 (which it later won), they had only just stopped being based out of a Norwich bookshop. After 2019’s controversial Man Booker announcement, wherein Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood were declared joint winners, Jordison wrote an impassioned article in The Times Literary Supplement, questioning the decision-making process and detailing the struggles that went into publishing Ducks, Newburyport.

“Our initial print run was 4,500 copies. Not the same as Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, I know, but a significant risk for a press as small as Galley Beggar. 600 of those copies arrived at our office — which is also our small terraced house in Norwich. We couldn’t move for books. We were exhausted. But we were also elated. It felt like we were about to give the world a tremendous gift,” Jordison wrote.

Moreover, once the book was longlisted and then shortlisted for the Booker, a different kind of problem emerged — the very real question of how to make sure your book gets the right eyeballs (recall what the publicists of Hollywood A-listers do, come Oscar season). Here, too, Galley Beggar found itself at a disadvantage and under considerable pressure from the industry’s bigger players.

“By this point, we were being hassled by bigger publishers who were desperate to take the book off our hands. Let us help you, they said. You won’t know what you’re doing. You won’t know how to handle the press. But we did it. The logistics of being on an internationally renowned prize are challenging, sure. And there are considerable expenses and demands (including giving £5,000 — make that £6,000 with VAT — to the Booker Foundation for being on the shortlist). But this was a game we had signed up for, and we were fully prepared to see it through.”

When you consider the scale of the challenges before Ellmann and Jordison, it’s not surprising that they reacted the way they did. Jordison wrote about how Ellmann (referred to as ‘Elly’) broke into tears after reading an article by Afua Hirsch, one of the Booker judges, where her comments seemed to indicate that Atwood’s “titanic career” was a factor in the decision. (As per the rules, Booker wins are not supposed to be about careers — they’re supposed to be about individual books.)

“It’s one thing to feel bad about losing. It’s another to feel you were never in the game. I’ve seen Elly cry four times in twenty years. One of them was when she read that article. This prize had taken over our lives. We had put everything into it. And now, it seemed that we had not had a hope from the start.”

If you’re looking to write or publish an RRBB, then these are the impossibly high stakes you play with. At some level, it’s only fitting — finishing a book that long takes a considerable investment of time on the reader’s part, after all. For the reader, with high risk must come the promise of high rewards, for there is nothing so disappointing as a mammoth book that turns out to be... middling. Not good and not all bad, just enough to reel you in and keep disappointing you for the next 800-900 pages. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is a prime example of that sort of thing. Luckily for us all, though, Ducks, Newburyport is no 1Q84. It throws caution to the winds in developing its grammar, so to speak. It rewards attentive reading — and in doing so, soars high.

Published on February 21, 2020
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