Essay: Ronnie Scotton consciousness in fiction

What Is It Like to Be a Book? 

The fact that the raccoons are now banging an empty yogurt carton around on the driveway, the fact that in the early morning stillness it sounds like gunshots, the fact that, even in fog, with ice on the road and snow banks blocking their vision, people are already zooming around our corner, the site of many a minor accident, the fact that a guy in a pickup once accidentally skidded into our garage, and next time it could be our house, or a child … 

This is the start of the main section of Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,030-page novel mostly devoted to spooling out a single long sentence that includes the phrase ‘the fact that’ over 19,000 times. The sentence is narrated by a twice-married middle-aged American mother, formerly an adjunct history professor and currently a baker of pies. While the tone may be wry or fizzy or really any number of things as it lands on everything from cryptids to Deep Fried Cheddar Cheese Curds to climate collapse, the sentence keeps being dragged back to the woman’s grief for her mother, whose illness and death ‘broke’ the protagonist when she was a teenager. Whether this grief is expressed as a partial thought – ‘rent parties, Mommy’ – or as sustained feeling – ‘the fact that I was doomed the minute Mommy got sick, the fact that I never really became a person’ – it has the buzzing strength possessed by our deepest memories, which are laden with a meaning that is more visual than verbal, and which we live with in an ebbing but ultimately persistent form that can never be fully exposed. This deep consciousness, the kind that is sometimes considered the unconscious, is where the title, Ducks, Newburyport is drawn from: it’s a memory of something that happened not to the narrator but her mother, a story about a near-drowning that her mother experienced as a child.  

Asserting the pull of these memories on the ‘surface’ – or sentence – of life is a contribution to a history of fictional dramatisations of consciousness. Ellmann’s jittery recursions are a novel twist on what is often called ‘stream of consciousness’, whose naturalistic metaphor of the ‘stream’ emerged in nineteenth-century medicine and was popularised in 1890 by the psychologist William James. Dorothy Richardson’s novel sequence Pilgrimage (1915–38) is generally considered the first work of fiction to put this technique into practice – though, as the neuroscientist and journalist Patrick House reminds us in Nineteen Ways of Looking at Consciousness, Richardson judged the term ‘imbecilic’ and countered that her consciousness ‘sits stiller than a tree’.  

The technique emerged in a milieu that was interested in subjectivity, including the subjective experience of time, and in what Virginia Woolf called ‘moments of non-being’ when the vibrancy of consciousness is dimmed. Woolf had been influenced by the philosopher Henri Bergson, who conceived time not as a line but as ‘a succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines’. Bergson’s characterisation indicates a tension between artfully sequenced narrative prose and the idea that time might be experienced as a blob. But a quality of the long sentence in Ducks, Newburyport is precisely its calibration to this tension, through its vulnerability to interruption by words and phrases that we might infer are being heard, conjured spontaneously, or read on a phone, which then melt into the sentence before it moves on. Ellmann has said that when starting the novel, ‘I wrote a page of sentences starting with “the fact that” one morning at dawn, and I liked its effect. It can be either emphatic or soothing, and it’s suspenseful: you don’t know how the sentence will end.’ You also don’t know how its effects will vary as it accrues mass, compresses backwards, and reshapes the preceding clauses, with tangents that dilute and repetitions that reinforce the psychological picture. Part of the experience of reading and enjoying Ducks, Newburyport is just reading and enjoying it – the mini-critiques of old movies, the warm portrait of the protagonist’s marriage, the emergence of patterns and fixtures of her world. But part of it comes from a meeting of the reader’s and protagonist’s comedies of labour – she bakes to pay her medical bills; we read thousands of thoughts – which converge in a dark humour of endurance. So much of this novel’s meaning is about its scale, a link between its mass and its momentum.  

Though immersion in a specific mind is Ducks, Newsburyport’s point and process, the experience is irregularly punctuated by third-person scenes focused on a mountain lion. I say ‘punctuate’ because that is how these scenes usually appear – they might go for a few pages or just a few paragraphs, sometimes after tens of pages of the unbroken long sentence and sometimes after just a handful. But the novel actually opens with a page-and-a-half scene starring the mountain lion before the long sentence (with the raccoons, the yoghurt carton) begins:  

When you are all sinew, struggle and solitude, your young – being soft, plump, vulnerable – may remind you of prey. 
To be woken, biffed in the face by the paw of a sleeping kitten. The damp furry closeness in the crowded den sometimes gave her an over-warm sensation akin to nausea, or boredom. Snaking her long limbs as far as space permitted, she longed to be out on her winding path, ranging wide in search of deer. 

These scenes follow a mountain lion and her cubs, and though I like the face-biffing, with its brief flirtation with an image of good-humoured beleaguered parenthood, the parallel with the human mother, mostly left to inference, is potent in the setup and otherwise underplayed (think of the riskiness of juxtaposing the hypothetical lion-mother who stands pure and wild alongside the human-mother who has to think about fast food and the Trumps). Whenever we come back to the mountain lion, after pages spent in a human mind, we encounter a consciousness for which ‘all of life is really recoil and leap, leap and recoil’, who knows ‘how every flower behaves’; for whom ‘movement [is] all’. ‘She knew the seasons, and how to plan for them.’ As she is walking, she thinks of her cubs in her den, and anticipates what she’ll teach them when they’re old enough to learn, and one of these things is that ‘rain has a smell, even before drops fall’. This impression repeats in the book, as part of a consistent perceptual language: ‘Pre-rain sank into the fur of her spine’. She gets satisfaction from ‘the sight of a dead sheep’s face, surrounded by tight woolen curls’, and indulges an inveterate dislike of mergansers. 

About two thirds through Ducks, Newburyport, as if in both joke and tribute to a normal three-act structure, the plot eventually moves her narrative and the human narrator’s closer together. The lion returns to find the shelter where she left her cubs has flooded, and the omniscient narrator tells us they’ve been ‘whisked away … in the back of a rattly station wagon’, setting them on a path where they and the human protagonist may eventually meet. But even as the lion’s mind encounters human-engendered strife, her sections remain pretty vividly mountain-lion; she’s intelligent, but the mind she has is a big, broad, practical animal mind – exuding contempt, avoiding individual humans, dreaming a scary vehicle into prey. 

A 1,000-page-plus novel has multiple narrative tools – one being immersion, with an emphasis on consistency, and another being juxtaposition, with its emphasis on contrast. These two modalities point to one of the larger questions about defining consciousness which may be as discrepant between individual humans as it is between the human and nonhuman. Part of House’s broader point about Richardson is that depending on your make-up, the way you experience consciousness really might be like a stream – or a tree. House notes that theories of consciousness, which also vary radically not only between disciplines but within them, tend to focus on what he calls ‘charismatic megaquale’ – ‘those experiences that feel big and vibrant and can charm us into thinking that there is something it is like to be something’ – when the bigger part of our consciousness is made up of something else – Woolf’s ‘non-being’. For the philosopher Melanie Challenger, in her book How to Be Animal, ‘Humans are only ever fleetingly conscious in the sophisticated sense of being self-reflective persons. More often, we rest in a state of perceptual consciousness that mightn’t be hugely dissimilar to that experienced by other animals.’  

It’s interesting – and sort of brain-bruising – to pit the stream of consciousness style against our varying conceptions of what is conscious and what is not, particularly when our senses of the conscious and the human are both so intimately tied to what is verbalised. Katy Waldman, for instance, argues that the point of the long sentence seems to be less verisimilitude than ‘a stylized braid of conscious and unconscious thought’. In Ducks, Newburyport, the sections devoted to the woman’s thinking really are a ‘long sentence’, but it’s only by reflex that I keep wanting to call the lion’s sections ‘scenes’, meaning they mostly adhere to a style of narration that is conventionally dramatic, that is, dedicated to conveying an observable world of physical action and plot. But both types of narration have their share of the available range of the ‘seeing, hearing, smelling, loving, hating, suffering, remembering, thinking, planning, imagining, dreaming, regretting, wanting, hoping, dreading’ that for the neuroscientist Christof Koch constitutes ‘inner life’, allowing Ellmann to blur freely the jobs ordinarily accomplished by different kinds of writing about different kinds of minds.  

Dip into the long sentence: 

the fact that by now I think caramelization has pretty much made me a nervous wreck, the fact that it’s probably aged me ten years, making these darn tartes tatin, 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 now all I do is study smoke and steam coming out of apples, sole purveyor, sole provider, sophomore, s’mores, Smores Bakery, sorority, initiation rites, the fact that I’m only doing it to help my family, and yet, to make any profit on these pies, I have to ignore my poor family half the time … 

This offers a good image of how stream-like narration can squash in past, present, future, conditional, a whole grab-bag of times. But it’s always pushing you onwards in ways that are very scene-like, anchoring you to the physical world at least by reinforced suggestion – these darn tartes tatin, these pies – as well as advancing both a character’s impression of themselves and the reader’s frictive understanding of that character.  

Conversely, when the mountain lion comes upon a river on one of her walks, the third-person narrator of these sections posits that ‘The river had a purr too, as water rhythmically rubbed, plopped, gulped, cracked, spat, splashed and flashed against stones’ – so far, so feline, if we think about free-indirect discourse. But at ‘a certain point’ for the mountain lion (and just a paragraph break for us), ‘the stream circled back on itself to form a serpentine double-helix of two interlocking peninsula – nature’s little joke on the water-shy’. It’s too tidy to read this image as a figure for the novel’s form. But it’s certainly a spectacular thing for a mountain lion to notice, or a narrator to work into a consistent stretch of animal-consciousness.  

If a reader is asked to consider what consciousness is in Ducks, Newburyport, one answer might be that it’s something there’s a lot of, and it’s something that comes in two styles. But it’s also true that in each of those styles, for all their presentational differences, the mega- and minor-quale, being and non-being, are both fairly thick on the ground; and, in a novel that is anxious-to-angry about the devaluing of everything from the state of the environment to social and familial bonds, this is itself slyly but profoundly political, fudging the terms by which weight is accorded to different kinds of world. 

When I was thinking about Ducks, Newburyport, I also happened to be reading Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 novel Dawn. Dawn is about a woman, Lilith, who wakes up on a living spaceship, having been taken off-world after a nuclear holocaust by a group of three-gendered aliens who have a biological imperative to repopulate the Earth. Amazingly, the novel soon becomes a kind of freaky HR drama when the aliens, as if they recognise Lilith as a trademark Butlerian pragmatist, recruit her to help them decide on the order in which the other frozen humans should wake, given their variance in skillsets, general willingness to believe they’re in space, and potential comfort with the big catch in the aliens’ plan to breed with the humans and merge their species. 

As in other Butler novels, the relationship between vehicle (aliens) and tenor (slavery) is all the more resonant for only rarely being explicated through narration or dialogue; instead, the plot is played ‘straight’ and tends briefly to roam into unexpected corners of its own implication, before just as quickly wandering back into the main allegorical strait. In one scene, Lilith is taken from her quarters in the living ship by the child-alien she is supposed to be bonding with and (it seems) shown off to other child-aliens, who can’t communicate with Lilith and may not have ever met a human. There’s a scary moment when the alien-children surround and overwhelm Lilith, both intensely excited by her and totally oblivious to her needs. ‘She discovered she was trembling and took deep breaths to relax herself. How was a pet supposed to feel? How did zoo animals feel?’ On reflection, she wonders if she better belongs to other analogous categories of the nonhuman: ‘Experimental animal, parent to domestic animals? Or… nearly extinct animal, part of a captive breeding program?’ 

It’s hard to say what a novel is doing without resorting to consciousness, whether or not it’s rendered in a stream of consciousness style. This is one of the serious implications of current discussions around creative writing and that other nonhuman, AI. When large language models rely on ‘ingesting’ writing, including fiction, to approximate minds, we should consider the range of written consciousnesses available to those models – from which AI might generate content, and from which Artificial General Intelligence might soon generalise. 

For the philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his 1974 essay, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’, the fact a nonhuman consciousness might count among ‘humanly inaccessible facts’ is no reason for interested parties not to stretch towards understanding, with interspecies objectivity recast not as an endpoint but as ‘a direction in which the understanding can travel’. Fiction is a superb medium for asking questions about the seemingly ‘inaccessible’, for which animals are an excellent provocation. As the novelist Romy Ash asked of Laura Jean McKay at the launch of Gunflower, ‘Do you feel changed, by taking on these [animal] perspectives? Are you more like a mosquito? More like a cage-bred chook? Are we more like a chook?’  

In our negotiations with the nonhuman, multiplying mystery feels more appropriate than resolve – one reason for the strikingness of those passages in Dawn. Another reason is they evoke the specific horror of a feeling that well-cared-for animals must get all the time – the loneliness of being nonhuman in a human world. When asked what cats think about, veterinary behaviorist Dr Carlo Siracusa told the Guardian that ‘Because they live in a human world, they most likely have thoughts related to us’, a mildly haunting idea that also seems to track with what Donna Haraway called the companion animal’s ‘historically specific kind of freedom’ – a state of respect and safety, and also terrible danger – in an ‘economy of affection’ where a being’s value depends on our largesse.  

In such an economy, a woozy perspective-shift like the one felt by Lilith seems like an honest approach to a meeting of human and nonhuman minds. When few parts of our lives – mapped as they are by the narratively significant ‘megaquale’ of love and suffering, birth and death – contrast meaningfully with those experienced by the non-human, our attitudes towards animal or AI will be characterised, as Challenger has observed, by the turbulence of the unacknowledgeable – perhaps in service to our death-denying psyches. 

And yet Nagel’s phrase about moving ‘in a direction in which understanding might travel’ seems aptly to describe the doubled action of Ducks, Newburyport, whose narrative is pushed along in such a lushly languaged fashion that it might risk reinforcing our speciesist assumptions about the connection between ‘higher orders’ of intelligence and linguistic grace, were it not constantly interrupted by writing in another form, which reminds us that consciousness need not be verbal.  

Here’s another lonely thought: compared with the richness of our modes of dramatising human life (when even as specialised a technique as stream of consciousness is so broadly well-understood), our ways of telling the nonhuman are so contrastingly slight. If only humans fictionalised the nonhuman more often, who knows what fiction might do that we don’t think it does? 

After I lost an animal earlier this year, I bawled all the way through the homeopathically-purchased lethal-tear-jerker novel The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, whose English translation by Philip Gabriel was published in 2017. In it a cat goes on a road trip with his terminally-ill owner who is trying to place the cat in a new home before he dies. But I laughed when I got to the part where the owner describes the different shades of red he can see out the car’s window and the cat absorbs the poignant lesson (and remembers the colours later). Among the many reasons I laughed at this – including emotional self-protection – one is a lack of exposure to narrative representations of nonhuman consciousness. Okay, fine, the way the cat is thinking does seem contrived – but so do lots of ways of showing minds, and we never mind. A vet who saw my friend late in his life described him as a ‘stoic’, and I’ve since tried to bridge the distance between my definition of a ‘stoic’ and whatever a cat might have been feeling at that time. If there is a bridge, it must exist in such high suspension between two different ways of being, a sentence and a scene.