Talking to ourselves; thinking to God
Reflections on a stream of consciousness novel
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to read a mind: to access a person’s unfiltered consciousness, to compare it to my own. I imagine the experience would be a bit like reading character-driven fiction, and a lot like reading Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport.
Ducks, Newburyport is a novel based on a stream of consciousness that runs without ceasing for more than a thousand pages. The stream contains no pauses, no paragraphs and only one full-stop.
It’s a daring experiment that Ellman’s regular publisher rejected—an understandable decision, but one they doubtless regretted when it made the 2019 Booker shortlist and won the Goldsmiths Prize.
In one sense, the book’s relentless form is familiar—it mirrors the frenetic, erratic nature of thought itself—but it’s completely unlike the prose we’re used to consuming, in fiction or anywhere else.
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Technically the narrative is a single sentence, but the repeated phrase “the fact that” functions as a full-stop of sorts, and a more conventional story (about a mountain lion, of all things) interrupts from time to time to change the pace.
Ellman wrote the first draft over a seven-year period and says that once she started, it was difficult to stop—she even added 30,000 words after submitting it for publication.
“I wanted to get in every single thing I knew about America, or thought I knew,” she says. This explains why, though fiction, it also reads like she’s collected every idea and opinion, every scrap of thought, she could. It also explains why the novel already feels like an important cultural artifact.
Broken and bewildered
I’m only 300 pages in, but I was exhausted long before. I decided early on that it’s a novel every fiction-lover should start, but not necessarily finish—though the more I read, the harder it is to stop.
It helps that I find the protagonist—a wife, mother, and former college teacher who now runs a baking business from her home—endearing. I can relate to her thoughts and often agree with her opinions. It would be a difficult read if she were narcissistic, arrogant and proud, but she’s empathetic, insecure and funny; devoted to her husband and her kids.
I feel for her, too. She’s suffered the loss of both her parents, a marriage break-up, and cancer; now she fears (among many other things,) losing the teenage daughter who appears to despise her. As she bakes, she frets: about “the fact that it’s probably aged me ten years, making this darn tartes tartin, and what for, for no reason, the fact that what use am I to my family or the community, the fact that I wanted to help everybody when I was younger, and all I do now is study smoke and steam coming out of apples…”—and so on.
Sometimes she’s angry, sometimes she’s resentful, but most of the time, she seems “bewildered”. There’s a sense her life is happening to her and she’s struggling to control it, let alone make sense of it.
She’s also bewildered by the world at large—a place where “they still don’t know who all the victims were from the latest Navy SEALs raid, but they do know they were mostly little children,” where “nothing you do seems innocent anymore”, where Donald Trump, of all people, could become the President.
How can she make sense of it all? She can’t.
As she goes about her day—baking for the day’s deliveries, going to the dentist, dropping her youngest child at playgroup—one thought leads to the next, to the next, to the next. They’re banal one moment (“the fact that I wonder whatever happened to that book”) and poignant the next (“the fact that you lose everything in life, everything”). I’m not waiting for anything in particular to happen, but the fact any thought could happen is compelling—perhaps the more ordinary a person and their day, the more room there is for interesting thought.
The Christian’s “stream”
The sense of possibility intrigues me, but what fascinates me most about the novel is wondering how closely Ellman’s depiction of a person’s thoughts might resemble reality. I’m pretty sure every stream-of-consciousness is frenetic, eclectic and chaotic—to some degree at least; but there must be an astonishing diversity in the content and character, form and tone; in the phrases and themes that recur—or don’t; all of which might vary wildly over the course of an hour, or a day, or a lifetime, depending on what a person is feeling or remembering or experiencing.
To what extent, I wonder, do our streams-of-consciousness bear the image of our maker, and to what extent have they been shattered by the Fall? Has our rebellion not only corrupted the content of the “stream”, but also disordered its form? And what difference does conversion make? What happens when God, the Holy Spirit, flows into the stream?
I’ve been a Christian for most of my life. I still find it difficult to pray and read God’s word without my mind wandering; to remind myself of his truths without letting all my doubts creep in as well. I still forget important lessons and resolutions, I still put myself before others. My thoughts are still disjointed and distracted. I’m still all-too-familiar with the law of sin at work within me.
And yet, the Bible says I’m being sanctified. When I think about it, my thoughts are less plagued by guilt and shame, fear and uncertainty, than they once were—are more hopeful and loving and free.
They’re also more purposeful.
Thinking to God
As Christians, we don’t just think to ourselves, we think to God. Now that we dwell with Christ, the centre of our thoughts isn’t always us; we know the source of all that’s right and good and true. And we don’t just pray for ourselves, we pray for others, and our world.
Preachers sometimes call on us to imagine our inner thoughts exposed—the shame—to demonstrate how sinful we are. But surely there are moments when our inner thoughts laid bare would be selfless, otherworldly—beautiful? Moments when we truly rejoice in our Father’s love—in what he’s done, in who we are—when gratitude and awe take centre stage?
Our streams-of-consciousness are still broken things in a broken world; a mess of fragments, shards and scraps—but some are being sanctified, a taste of what’s to come.