Danielle Dutton’s S P R A W L reads as if Gertrude Stein channeled Alice B. Toklas writing an Arcades Project set in contemporary suburbia. Dutton’s unnamed housewife roams sidewalks and manicured lawns like one of Benjamin’s flaneurs, reminiscent of the contemporary urban walkers of Renee Gladman’s stories or Gail Scott’s My Paris. But this novel is like other works, and it is not—it is both unabashedly voracious in terms of literary sources and an extraordinarily original text.
While in her first book, the remarkable collection Attempts at a Life, Dutton lifted language from other literary works as collage, in S P R A W L other texts pop up as allusion or inspiration, in the names of books or characters. Sources include Gertrude Stein novels; Lyn Hejinian in “Two Stein Talks”; an article on “Tupperware: Suburbia, sociality and mass consumption”; Laura Riding in Anarchism Is Not Enough; Roland Barthes in “The World as Object”; and A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating. As in Attempts at a Life, Dutton pays homage to female literary characters, particularly wives, from Woolf’s Clarissa D. to Emma and Alice B.
In this book, we listen in on the monologue of Dutton’s housewife, who watches and catalogs with a painterly eye both her house’s interiors and the external landscape, finding beauty and sometimes ecstasy in the mise-en-scènes of domestic objects. (S P R A W L was inspired by a series of still lifes by the photographer Laura Letinsky.) Dutton’s suburbs are a return to ’50s nostalgia, surface normalcy with a strange libidinal energy surging underneath, and her good housewife is an absurd Martha, engaged in a devouring, almost mystical housewifery, who finds delirium rather than tedium in the art of arrangement (of fruit baskets, flower vases, elaborate meals), reminiscent of the zeal of Bowles’s serious ladies, or of Duras’s observant and fastidious Lol Stein.
Dutton’s language is associative and ecstatic; there is a rhythm to her unending stream, her absurd catalogs of overconsumption. “I make two ribs of beef for dinner, one tuna, four omelets one iced cucumber soup, two Chinese cabbages, two salads, five hams, one chicken liver, and for dessert I make pears in wine, one strawberry tart, one lemon tart, three apple pies, one bananas foster, and three chocolate cream pies.” She writes a series of hilarious letters, possibly just in her head, to wives in the neighborhood and even to the mayor: “Dear Mrs. Sharp, I am one of the best letter writers in town, if not the best. I was born here and never strayed. That’s a lie. No one was born here. I am a rugged individualist and a sage. Thank you for attending my Tupperware parties.” There’s an eccentricity and a watchfulness to this narrator despite her hysterical civicness, her hostess-with-the-mostest, a loopiness to her quotidian routine, like a lucid Betty Draper on speed.
Dutton deconstructs narratives of femininity navigated in the blank space of the day, calling to mind the domestic surrealism of another poet of the everyday, Lydia Davis, and also the bizarre eroticism of Diane Williams. The narrator wanders through her days alone, with only objects to comfort her, and sometimes fellow wives, finding a fecundity and poetry in a landscape so often considered with horror as a wasteland. Besides being read for the intense pleasure of the language, S P R A W L can be read as a feminist treatise on women who spend their days confined and alone, who slave to construct beautiful feasts and tableaux, dismissed as appendages.