After lots of chatter about Ducks, Newburyport I decided to dive in. Will report on the ride through the 1000+ pages. Meanwhile, some interesting words from the London Review of Books notice by John Day
For modernists, paying attention to what Beckett called ‘the within, all that inner space one never sees’ was intended as much to clear away the old as to make it new. In her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf argued that writers should strip away the extraneous stuff that the novel had accumulated around itself, and that marred the work of ‘materialist’ novelists like Wells and Galsworthy. Instead, she argued, they should record the ‘atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall’ and ‘trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness’. But in replacing externalities with internalities many modernist novels ended up as full of stuff as a Victorian drawing room, even if it was different stuff.
Ducks, Newburyport is full of clutter. There are some long lists that feel like they’ve been transposed from Ellmann’s earlier novels (brand names, cleaning products, types of pie, the contents of a fridge, various ways of cooking shrimp), synopses of films (often musicals) and actors’ careers, descriptions of internet fads, details of how many chickens are killed in America each year, an account of the objects used in a memory game. Halfway through the book the narrator thinks about Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru, who advises her followers to ‘hold every possession in your hands and decide if it gives you joy … if it does, you get to keep it, and if it doesn’t, you dump it.’ This strikes her as a fairly silly way of assessing what’s necessary in a home – ‘Scotch tape doesn’t give me any joy, I don’t think, but sometimes you need some’ – and it’s an equally useless way of deciding what’s important in fiction.