Sunday 2 February 2020

"the fact that you'll never know ...

... what sort of person you might have been if you'd read different stuff" (p.908) 
I have been reading articles recently about the importance of doing nothing amidst the busyness of modern life. 'Ducks, Newburyport' by Lucy Ellmann is as close as reading can get to doing nothing; 1000 pages of stream-of-consciousness without full stops or paragraph breaks or chapters. I struggled through the first 30 pages or so and wondered WTF. Then I relaxed into it and just read the words. I just read the words without expectation that things would happen, that the 'story' was 'heading' anywhere. And yet looking back it feels incredible well plotted (if that is the right word). The last two hundred pages or so I wondered if it would just stop when I got to the last page; how do you end something without an apparent narrative. One of the reviewers commented that you would miss it when it was over, and I certainly did; when I got into bed last night I wanted to read it and have seriously considered starting again (except it is already overdue at the library).

I thought that with 1000 pages it would inevitably get repetitive, but it doesn't. Some subjects come around again and again, but, while in some ways she lives a very small life, in others she is very aware of the world and thinks about a huge variety of subjects. She makes her living baking pies, and that, and the daily round of caring for the children, forms the basis for much of her thoughts, but things link together in that abstract way that thoughts have of running one from another and there is a strange kind of logical flow to the whole book. Words will pop up repeatedly, harping back to a previous thought or incident, almost as if she is checking you have been paying attention. She corrects her own thoughts for clarification, which I found irritating to begin with but then I found that it was part of her sense of humour, to be amused by potential misunderstanding. And then there is the lion story: interspersed every 50 to 100 or so pages the flow is interrupted by a page, sometimes two, about a mountain lion and her cubs. Gradually the two stories converge, until the lion arrives in their garden ... but that is not the denouement. 

Am just going to give you some tastes of the book now (for info, Leo is her husband, Stacey her older daughter). 

"the fact that Leo and I were talking about Stacy and how she's down on everything except vegans, and I said she had to sift through the world and decide for herself what's good about it and what's bad, the fact that so far she's better at deciding on the bad stuff, the fact that I said it's 'a process of acceptance and rejectance,' the fact that I didn't know how that came out but Leo liked it, the fact that I don't know if it's English but it's true, the fact that adolescence is a process of acceptance and rejectance," (p.100)

"the fact that even with Cathy I still worry about what we'll say to each other, every time we talk, or if she'll even want to speak to me,  and I'm so shy, sometimes I don't want to see her, just in case she's a little distant with me for some reason, even if it's nothing to do with me, which is kind of sad, since she's my best friend in Ohio" (p.244)

"the fact that the Muskingum's sluggish too, the fact that it just meanders slowly to Marietta where it merges with the Ohio, the fact that maybe that's why the Muskingum was important in the Underground Railroad, because it was easy to navigate, I don't know, the fact that the Big Bottom Massacre happened on the shores of the Muskingum, the fact that that was in retaliation for the Moravian Indian massacre in Gnadenhutten, which was about the worst thing that ever happened around here, worst thing ever period, ninety-two Lenapes, all Lenapes," (p.328)

"the fact that I've always gotten Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm mixed up with Anne of Green Gables, though I've never even read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 'I do declare,' Sunnybrook, Atticus Finch, deductibles and co-pays, the fact that Morning Routine girls never forget to brush their hair, the fact that they never read a book, though they all have The Great Gatsby or Girl, Interrupted on their bedside table, the girl in Island of the Blue Dolphin making herself necklaces, even though nobody will ever see her, the fact that I learned nothing about life when I was a teenager except I can't do things, and that I'm a disappointment, to myself and others, the fact that high school was like a four-year training camp in how to be disappointed in myself," (p.383)

Purple Martin
"the fact that sometimes, in the middle of a long day, I look at a shadow and it seems like a little portion of nighttime, like envelopes of night that hang around in the day, and that comforts me somehow, because the time I like best is when the kids are asleep and Leo and I can go to bed, the fact that there's nighttime in clothing too, like pockets of darkness up a sleeve, or in your pants, or under your jacket, upskirting, secret nighttime, the fact that I dreamt it was night and I heard a strange crumpling sound, and in the dream I could fly, so I flew over to a dark hedge to see what was making the crumpling noise but I couldn't see anything except pure blackness, the fact that I kept peering into the blackness, hoping my eyes would adjust but they never did," (p.516)

"the fact that there is no way a newly opened poppy can't be thrilled to be alive, and trees, and waterfalls, the fact that waterfalls sure act thrilled, except when they dry to a trickle during a dry spell or something, the falls at Fallingwater, the fact that water must have a sense of itself, a real liking for itself, because bodies of water are always trying to meet up, the fact that it's hard to keep them apart, the fact that that's why oceans exist, they're big water get-togethers, Jacques Cousteau, the fact that maybe waves worry about getting separated from the rest of the water, the fact that they probably don't want to end up stuck in a tide pool, the fact that that's why dams seem so sad, because the water isn't being allowed to do what it wants, like to find new streams to join or something, new playmates, creeks and lakes and ponds and rivers, the fact that even droplets of water are attracted to each other, raindrops in tide pools, puddles, the fact that that's why a glass full of water has that curved top, a meniscus, because the water's trying to hold together as long as possible, the fact that it doesn't want to start dribbling over the edge, the fact that water likes to hold on to its integrity," (p795-6)

At page 645 there starts a nearly 30 page list of 'certainties' in an uncertain world, which was one of my favourite passages and pretty much in itself summed up the state of the world. It starts with "the sun will rise and set every day" and "leaves will still turn red in the autumn" through to "the police with shoot citizens" "I will say the wrong thing sometimes" "pasta will reach the al dente stage" "people will insist on putting unsustainable palm oil into everything" until "dialects will be lost ditto languages along with the art of lace-making basketry quilting embroidery traditional recipes and probably pomanders"

I feel like I want to go out and persuade people to read this book. In fact I have hidden a little encouraging note inside for the next reader, in the hope that it helps them stick it out. I liked her so much and felt like I knew her in ways that you don't usually know a character. I wanted to tell her not to beat herself up about stuff. It's so unlike anything else you will read, even more so that Girl is a half-formed thing, because it is concentrated in such a small space of time, and so is much more intense, and the length means you get so much more absorbed into it. I am not sure what else to say. The human mind is an amazing place.