A high school teacher, in his final lecture, warned us that if we internalized what he taught us, reading literature would no longer be a struggle, but an engagement with human life. He neglected to tell us that such an engagement transforms the novel from popcorn to asparagus.
Quarantine caged my human life into a 1,000 square foot apartment with a diseased, toothless foster cat and my roommate of three years. We’ve choreographed a dance together that has kept us sane and ensured the bubble of our individual mental illnesses locked-in at a simmer. I wake at 5, feed the cat and have time to myself until around 8 when my roommate rises and then, I log into work at 9, floating in and out of my room to complain about any number of things from my work load to Twitter drama, from my pen’s ink to a bad sentence I read in a book and how that sentence represents the decline of queer radical politics, and how there is no political hope for queer life divorced from love and sex; I tell them, and they cross their legs, ask me if I’m finished, and we both return to our tasks. Perhaps, I have boiled over a bit; my quarantine lid is a bit tight.
I set out at the turn of the New Year to read Lucy Ellmann’s novel Ducks, Newburyport, the mostly one sentence, one thousand page novel about an Ohio house wife and a wild lioness. Before Philadelphia fell under a stay-at-home order, I had read approximately 500 pages and felt excited about the prospect of swiftly finishing it. I am on page 519, after forty days of quarantine.
My slow down comes not from the novel’s pace, which is static, but from the novel’s content. The experience of reading Ellmann’s novel, where the one run-on sentence is told in the first person, produces such anxiety, it’s an almost too on the nose metaphor for life under quarantine. Each clause in the main-sentence begins with “the fact that” and proceeds to walk through the life of the stay at home mother, her husband, their four children and her at-home baking business.
“[T]he fact that Leo thinks Trump’s got [Melania] blackmailed somehow, the fact that sometimes it feels like this whole country’s got Stockholm Syndrome, like we’re all held prisoner, the fact that I wonder how many people dream about getting along with Trump, Democrats too, the fact that I’ve had dreams like that, handcuffs, strong-armed, the fact that the police use plastic handcuffs now, the fact that…”
The narrator’s voice is anxiety projected onto a Berlin Wall of block text, page after page, hopping from tangential thoughts and phrases, to baking, or digging herself out of a snow drift, or more baking. Most of the action of the novel is the narrator baking, our unifying social media task under lockdown. Baking, unlike cooking, is math and science, it is not flair and art. There is control in baking: two teaspoons is two teaspoons; using three cups of flour instead of one will make a cake dry, you can’t fix it, there is no going back, only starting over, or expanding the batch, doubling and tripling ingredients until balance is restored.
My therapist often talks about “managing” mental illness, not controlling it, and whether that rhetoric represents neoliberalism isn’t really for me to adjudicate, but baking isn’t about managing, writing a novel isn’t a management task, those things fall under control, missteps in either process and the whole thing comes out overdone or underdone; the bake turns stodgy. Ellmann’s writing entices me because she isolates us inside the mind of a normal woman under normal suburban conditions and unspools not only the depths of her mind, but it’s shallows, the parts she’d rather not admit to having, the stupid, trite thoughts, the ones we keep in silence away from the world. Social control demands we keep those things caged, protect them from the world, regulate their spread. I can’t read more because it renders and slows down the thought process word by word, thought by thought, stupid idea by stupid idea.
In reading Ducks, I feel my own control slip away, I hear my own thoughts wander along with the narrator: the fact that I’ve never dreamt about Trump, the fact that dreams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, Cracked Magazine, the fact that something happened where a segment of the population attributed their mental illness to one man instead of our society we live in, Mark Fisher, the fact that I could’ve studied at Goldsmiths, they offered me funding after all, but now I’m here reading this novel, “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘Natural Order,’” Ghosts of My Life, Ghosts of my life, ducks, fucks, not giving any, the fact that Ellmann calls the single sentence a “pure supposition” in the inscription, the fact that Machado writes about paratexts and their usefulness, the fact that being “well read” isn’t a personality, personality disorder, disorder, Natural Order, Natural Law, Catholicism, the fact that being raised Catholic hasn’t made sitting in silence any easier, the fact that silence is difficult to achieve, real silence, control over the breath, in and out, the fact that meditation requires silence, or at least mostly silence, the fact that the app I use to meditate has an Australian voice-over which is a particularly unmeditative accent, Brisbane, Perth, Perth Glory, the fact that Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in Glory, Matthew Broderick, the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker is in Sex & the City and I always think she’s in Friends, not a very good gay man I am then, the fact that it is much more fun to write like this than it is to read, the fact that this quarantine may end but mental illness won’t, the fact that I’d probably like to finish the book but who knows when I will.