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  • Writer's pictureChiara Greco

The Age of Fracture's "Great American" Novel

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Considering Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport as a contemporary great amongst the greats

photo credit: nutgraf press

Chiara Greco, Nutgraf Press Creator

What makes a novel great? What makes a novel American? These questions seem elusive and surface level but with consideration they become more challenging. The latter question may be easier to answer at a first glance: a novel about America or about an American. But what makes one great for a nation? This idea of greatness and its relation to patriotism must first be discussed in order to truly understand what makes a novel "great." When we think of great American novels we think of Moby Dick, or The Grapes of Wrath, or perhaps even The Great Gatsby. These “great American novels” are all alike in one way or another, laden with the common themes of nationalism and patriotism, written by men and veiled in whiteness. In other words, they are each inherently American, and because of it they get the label of “great.” So how can we now characterize Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport as the next great American novel?

Well, for starters, Ellmann's novel looks like a great American novel. Its stature and length, its font and binding. Everything about its outward appearance seems to suggest that the novel itself knows its importance, it is aware of its greatness. Much like Moby Dick, the novel is massive. It takes up space. But, besides its outward appearance, Ducks, Newburyport is like many of the novels just mentioned, riddled with political, social, and cultural themes and attitudes. The novel is about the now in every way imaginable. It represents the contemporary American Age of Fracture, and in doing so becomes “great.” After all, America wants to read novels about themselves, and that is exactly what Ducks, Newburyport is. A novel which portrays America (as a nation) as a secondary, if not, main character.

Though to take a step deeper, Ellmann’s novel perhaps more accurately represents the present moment for the white middle class suburban family currently living through the Age of Fracture. As such, the novel capture the lives of Americans and the national life of America through its representations of survival and internalized brokenness during the Age of Fracture. But how does Ellmann’s novel relate to the previous “greats”? Ducks, Newburyport does not necessarily follow the novels mentioned before, of course the themes are similar—American life, politics, patriotism, society, pressure, fracture, fear. These themes encompass each of the so called greats. But, unlike the novels mentioned, Ducks, Newburyport is inherently contemporary and this makes it interesting to be even considered as a “great” American novel, since most of the other “greats” represent the past—something which America is obsessed with. Ellmann’s novel deviates from this and in doing so exhibits itself as a novel of great contemporary value.

Ducks, Newburyport is the story of living in contemporary America during the Age of Fracture. The novel follows a white middle class suburban mother and a mother lion. These two stories intertwine and connect, though the main focus is on the nameless narrator, who is in the mist of making desserts and pastries for a cocktail party her husband is hosting. Throughout her baking, the narrator voices her inner thoughts on American life, most of which are heavily influenced by the current Age of Fracture. This section of the novel is narrated through a never ending sentence like structure with the repetitious phrase "the fact that" encompassing each of the narrators thoughts. In smaller paragraphed chunked passages we get the story of a mother lion fending for her young ones, in many ways this story is a metaphorical representation of our narrator. The mother lion story is important here because it presents a divide, or a break in consciousness. Both stories, while different are each representative of fracture and survival—two distinct concepts when it comes to analyzing the current contemporary age in America.

The term Age of Fracture, in this article’s context, may be defined as the period in contemporary American history from 2016 to the present day. In defining this as the Age of Fracture, Ellmann can be placed within the centre of this age. Ellmann’s novel published in 2019 is respectively about and of the current period. As such, Ellmann represent the public and personal pressures of living and experiencing the current contemporary American moment, otherwise described as the now. And this in of itself makes the novel “great.”

Ellmann’s nameless narrator becomes the representation of the suburban American grappling with the Age of Fracture previously defined. Though what is perhaps most interesting is the narrator’s complete internalization of this fracture. The narrative form of free and indirect discourse, or stream of consciousness writing introduces the reader to the inner fracture of the narrator. This inner fracture is exhibited most directly when the narrator says, “the fact that I’m broken.” This passages’ acknowledgement of brokenness swings between the historical and the personal. The narrator talks about guns, pies, and the U.S. postal service. To which she states, “it’s all symbolic of something.” This portrays the interconnectedness between the domestic and the political in America—the domestic is symbolic of the political and vice versa. In this sense, Ellmann’s narrator is representing the domestic fracture which occurs through living within political fracture. An article in The New Yorker by Katy Waldman furthers this argument stating that Ellmann “captures the pathos of the everyday, how one might use pie crusts and film synopsis to dam in pain. [Ellmann] also allows the narrator’s avoidance to suggest a greater amnesia, an American reluctance to face its past and its ongoing brutalities.”

Ellmann portrays the side of the past which wishes to forget. But, it is not the narrator who wishes to forget as she even states that she “remembers too much” rather it is America. In this sense, Ellmann creates America itself as a secondary character within the life of the narrator. In other words, this novel could not be set in any other place or any other time—it is both of and about the current period. This alone sets the novel towards its “greatness.” It is a relic of its time, even though that time is just three years ago.

Ellmann also creates a constant back and forth between the personal and the public within the novel. Ellmann’s narrator states, “I had a bad dream about Trump last night too, the fact that he admitted to me he couldn’t cope with the job.” The narrator then digresses into stating, “I think that people today must be the saddest people ever, because we know we ruined everything.” This becomes representative of the collective dialogue in America at this present moment, this idea of things being “ruined” or fractured. The narrator represents this collective dialogue of fracture by stating, “the fact that it feels like this whole country has Stockholm syndrome.” These small statements encompass the whole novel and lead the reader to connect with the narrator. Just as America as a nation is a character in the novel, so is the reader. Ellmann’s narrator requires a listener. The reader could perhaps be considered omniscient, hovering over the narrator as she spews out her inner thoughts and anxieties. This also forces the reader to pay attention. The reader here is part of the collective, intertwined with the personal and the public.

Perhaps most indicative of the Age of Fracture, Ellmann’s narrator states, “I’m sure people haven’t always lived in such a constant state of alarm.” The experience of reading the novel itself did leave me in a state of alarm. I won’t lie, when I first read through the novel the repetition of "the fact that" which I previously mentioned started out as an annoyance, something I needed to get past while reading. I should also note before ending that I read this for a class and most likely would not have picked it up willingly at a bookstore on my own accord, nonetheless as I pushed through I became aware of its importance. Repetition is American. History repeats itself constantly, America seems to be founded on that principle alone and this novel’s repetition is just another reminder of that. But, like any novel working to define a whole nation, Ducks, Newburyport holds more meaning than what I’ve analyzed here. The novel is open to vast possibilities in the same way that Americans like to think America is. So, the fact that this novel exists in all its entirety points to its greatness.

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