I’ve heard from three people — privately and confidentially — about what a narcissistic monster Lucy Ellmann is. I was crazy about her novel, Ducks, Newburyport — so much so that I even put together a list of all the music cues contained in the massive book. But the stories about her put me off. I was prepared to ignore Lucy Ellmann for the rest of my life, possibly reading future volumes of hers once my animus towards her had died down a bit or, ideally, after she herself had kicked the bucket (one should try to separate the art from the artist and, let’s face it, there’s no better time to untangle such a thorny moral predicament than one year after a repugnant author has died). But on Monday, some of Ellmann’s ugliness bubbled up to the surface in a vile, racist, and anti-intellectual 256 tweet vomit that she posted under the Galley Beggar Press Twitter feed.
The “essay” — if it can be called that — was unaccomplished penny-ante postmodernism, reading almost as if Lydia Davis had a lobotomy but was still somehow allowed to publish just after some opportunistic huckster (in this case, Sam Jordison) had learned that there was enough frontal lobe left in the old bag’s head to bang out a few words. The “essay” is an uninventive laundry list of things that Ellmann deems crap. Very obvious targets like Jeff Bezos, macaroons, terrorists, Boris Johnson, et al. In other words, the kind of hacky standup material that wouldn’t even fly on open mic night. Followed by more subjective objects of hate, such as Jeopardy!, Judy Garland, video games, and Tom Jones. At this point, the “satire” extends to nearly every state of existence (dying young, being a kid, being an adult) until it reaches a desperately racist and anti-intellectual crescendo here:
Hilarious! Genius!TM Good Christ, I’m pissing on every pair of pants I own right now!
Hardly. By cleaving to a racist conspiracy theory like this, even under the old hack’s parlor trick of using “satire” as a defense for vile sentiments, Ellmann is clearly siding against science and against intellectualism. The so-called “Wuhan lab leak” theory neatly aligns with other racist conspiracy theories such as the “great replacement” theory — a detestable strain of racism that has been used to justify Islamophobia. Moreover, the Wuhan lab leak theory has led to a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Shall we talk about the man who stabbed three members of an Asian-American family (including two children younger than 6) because he believed that they were “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus”? Or how about the creep in Boston who followed a Chinese American doctor from a hospital and screamed, “Why are you Chinese people killing everyone? What is wrong with you? Why the fuck are you killing us?”
This is the virulent racism that Lucy Ellmann commits herself to.
Ellmann knew damn well that her bullshit would grab the attention of an audience. Her casual racism aligned neatly with Quentin Tarantino’s racist falsehoods against Bruce Lee. If this was comedy, well, it’s indistinguishable from the vituperative hate that one can finds in a soulless prop comic like Gallagher. The upshot is that Ellmann’s promotional strategy represents a book publicity problem we’re not talking about. White people can spout off anti-Asian sentiments to get attention and sell books. And Galley Beggar Press, being the true cynical fuckwits that they are, can bask in the glory, claiming that anybody who objects to the dissemination of an unproven racist lie in the name of “art” needs to lighten up.
But even if the tweetstorm had not contained the racism, it says quite a bit about Galley Beggar Press’s lack of editorial standards that they would honestly believe that such cartoonish nihilism was the stuff of “boundary-pushing literature.” This indie press is more of a religious cult where a “genius” author can do no wrong. I suppose Sam Jordison fancies himself a Barney Rosset of our time, but Lucy Ellmann is hardly on the level of Ioenesco, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Genet, or even de Sade. There is nothing artistically redeeming about what Lucy Ellmann published on Twitter. It isn’t doing anything innovative like Naked Lunch or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is simply the random spew of a 64-year-old loser who has nothing left in her vestibule of tricks other than cheap “provocative” vacuity.
A number of people pushed back against Galley Beggar on Twitter for publishing Ellmann’s racism. But something interesting happened along the way. Gallery Beggar began blocking critics of the Ellmann who were Asian (such as Bloomsbury marketing executive Wei Ming Kam), but refrained from blocking critics who weren’t Asian. In other words, Sam Jordison went well out of his way to target those of Asian descent and showed very much how he was an upholder of systemic racism.
I want to be clear that Ellmann and Galley Beggar Press should be free to publish whatever they want. But let’s stop rewarding any author who believes that anti-Asian hate is the best way to get attention. Anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 164% from last year. It seems to me that every writer has a duty to be more sensitive to this.
7/6/2021 1:15 PM UPDATE: Galley Beggar’s Sam Jordison and Lucy Ellmann have blocked me on Twitter, proving that they are both top-tier racists:
Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport is the best novel I have read in three years. To celebrate just how terrific this masterpiece is, I have assembled this useful list of musical cues contained throughout its 1,000 pages.
As we approach the end of the year (as well as the end of the decade!), I feel morally obligated to offer a shoutout to Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport — an extraordinary 1,000 page novel composed of a single sentence (broken up by short passages of a lioness wandering in the wild), all told entirely from the perspective of a shy housewife in Ohio with four kids. The woman in question — who is delightfully charming, subtly thoughtful, often very funny, and struggling to make ends meet and deal with troubled family members just like the rest of us — spends much of her time baking pies and thinking about old movies and climate change and Henry Rathbone’s mental decline and, well, damn near everything! She is both real enough to acknowledge her great love for her husband Leo yet eccentric enough to tell us about a spitball with the words I ❤ YOU that was lodged in her ear for years. Ellmann somehow manages to encapsulate a broad swath of emotions and concern for the American clime without ever straying from the inherent positivism of her narrator. This book is such an incredible achievement that it isn’t just my favorite work of fiction published in the last year. It may be the best contemporary novel I have read in the last three years! The book is so nimble in the way it conveys one woman’s consciousness, but it does this without the central stylistic device becoming a gimmick. Not only did this truly great novel completely capture my attention and imagination, but it did one thing that books of this size rarely do: it slowed me down as a reader. I found the unnamed woman taking on the role of an old friend and, not more than a hundred pages in, I began timing my reading jags to match a coffee chat or a drinks session. I really didn’t want the book to end. And yet it had to.
To offer readers some additional incentive to follow the many rabbit holes of knowledge contained within this mighty book, I’ve decided to assemble a concordance of all the lyrics within the book that are italicized within the ♫ symbols. As someone who has always been a somewhat quiet music buff, the book’s fixation on musicals, old folk songs, and nursery rhymes caused me to chatter my teeth like Roger Rabbit and jump out from my hiding place, often breaking into song. In fact, this was the rare book that inspired me to learn “Follow the Drinking Gourd” on my guitar (a clip of which is included among the many YouTube clips below).
These days, I don’t often take on the public role of hardcore advocate. I’m very busy editing my audio drama and I’m mostly retired from my previous life of literary journalism. But this novel is the recherche exception in which I felt compelled to return and sing my praises from the rafters. (In fact, this book often caused me to burst into song in public places.) Books that make you this passionate — much like people you fall greatly in love with — don’t come around all that often over the course of a lifetime. Seriously, if you haven’t picked this book up, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to visit your local independent bookstore, drop down the cash, and read this as soon as you can! I’ve purchased three copies of this book so far: one for me, two for friends. And I have a feeling that I will probably buy at least two more copies before the year is up.
For the purposes of this concordance, the page numbers are contained in parentheses. I took these references from the Biblioasis edition.
“Drink to me only” (11)
“with thine eyes” (19)
“Drink to me only” (30)
“And I’ll not ask for wine” (30)
“and I’ll not ask for wine” (592)
“Drink to me only wi-ith thine eyes” (706)
“Mad dogs and Englishmen” (11)
“She wheels a wheelbarrow” (20)
“Whatta they got that I ain’t got? Courage!” (65)
“Whatta they got that I ain’t got? Courage!” (127)
“a bushel and a peck” (25)
“sassy as can be” (28)
“Skip to my Lou, my darlin'” (28)
“skip to my Lou” (708)
“And it went right to my head” (30)
“Indicate the way to my abode, I”m fatigued and wish to retire” (30)
(Note: There have been numerous variations on this song since its inception of 1925, but I cannot seem to find the version containing the lyric “Indicate the way to my abode” — as observed here>)
“There’s no business like show business like no business I know” (33)
“I’m no chump, I just bit off a camel’s hump” (40)
“That’s amore” (43)
“On the banks of the Ohio” (46)
“On the banks of the Ohio” (315)
“by the banks of the Ohio” (748)
“count your blessings instead of sheep” (46)
“I’m just wild about animal crackers, animal crackers” (50)
“blessings instead of sheep” (63)
“instead of sheep” (112)
“Bears and tigers haunt me all day” (787)
“London Bridge is falling down” (47)
“love’s old sweet song” (48)
“Soaky soaks you clean” (49)
“The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo” (62)
“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal” (75)
“The Stars and Stripes Forever” (80)
“The Stars and Stripes Forever” (613)
“The Stars and Stripes Forever” (818)
“just get me to the church on time” (83)
“I don’t know why she swallowed a fly” (101)
“She swallowed a spider to eat the fly” (259)
“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly” (384)
“There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children she didn’t know what to do” (385)
“perhaps she’ll die” (393)
“way down yonder in the paw-paw patch” (105)
“La donna è mobile” (117)
“as high as an elephant’s eye” (127)
“Polly Wolly Doodle all the way” (130)
“Sing Polly Wolly Doodle all the day” (479)
“Polly Wolly Doodle all the day” (729)
“schmaltzy film music” (144) — General, take your pick.
“Born Free” (153)
“Whe-e-e-e-ere is love?” (157)
“Whe-e-e-e-ere is love?” (273)
“Whe-e-e-e-ere is love?” (275)
“the beer that pickled dear old dad” (167)
“We are, we are, we are, we are, we are the engineers” (168)
“four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie” (170)
“Beethoven’s Fifth” (171)
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream” (173)
“March of the Penguins” (178)
“Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz” (186)
“Plop, plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh what a relief it is” (315)
“plop… top… swap” (692)
(So I am unsure about the reference on Page 692. I could not find a version of the Alka-Seltzer song that had “swap” in it.)
“the Appassionata” (188)
“Mele Kalikimaka” (214) (twice on page)
“Mele Kalikimaka” (222)
“the island greetings we send to you from the land where the palm trees sway” (223)
“Mele Kalikimaka” (223)
“Mele Kalikimaka” (224)
“land where the palm trees sway” (226)
“Mele Kalikimaka” (229)
“Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way” (231)
“Your feet’s too big” (220)
“when a man’s an empty kettle” (225)
“I am little Buttercup, sweet little Buttercup” (231)
“Poor Little Buttercup, Sweet Little Buttercup I, Dear Little Buttercup” (342)
“Jimmy crack corn, I don’t care” (246)
“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave” (255) (three times)
“His pet lambs will meet him on the way” (255)
“If you’re worried and you can’t sleep” (263)
“Glo-o-o-oria eggshell-sis deo” (273)
“Whe-e-e-e-ere is it?” (273)
So this one is a stumper. Because there are so many songs out there with “Where is it?” in the lyrics. But I’m going with Yentl.
“Tiptoe through the tulips” (286)
“Tiptoe through the tulips” (374)
“Tiptoe through the tulips” (434)
“Just rope ‘n’ throw ‘n’ brand ’em” (296)
“where the buffalo roam” (296)
“dollars for donuts” (296)
“dollars to donuts” (437)
“dollars to donuts” (438)
“dollars to donuts” (439)
“dollars to donuts” (440)
“dollars to donuts” (485)
“I’m a little teapot, short and stout” (300)
“I’m a little teapot” (796)
“Cut-cut-cut-cudacket, Said the little hen” (300)
I have no idea what this song is, but the phrase “Cut-cut-cut Cudaucket” is referenced in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Great Chicken Debacle:
“We are poor little lambs that have lost our way, baa, baa, baa!” (306)
“We are poor little lambs” (987)
“they call the Rising Sun” (308)
“So beware, Be-ee-ee-ee-ware…Drink-ing, drinking-ing, dri-i-i-i-i-i-i-inking, D-R-I-N-K-I-N-G” (315)
The closest thing I could find to this was Tom Lehrer’s classic song, “Pollution,” which I think the narrator is paraphrasing, given the novel’s concern for climate change.
“Now the riverbank will make a mighty good road” (316)
“Follow the drinking gourd” (692)
“Now the river ends between two hills” (755)
Also, just for fun, I ended up learning this song on my guitar. Here’s a short clip!