Danielle Dutton is the author of three books and wrote the texts for Richard Kraft’s Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera. Her first novel, SPRAWL was published by Siglio in 2010, but Wave Books re-released this little masterpiece in 2018, and thank goodness, because, subconsciously, I have been searching everywhere for the present-day Georges Perec. I’m not entirely sure how that sounds, but I promise that I mean nothing but praise for Dutton and her characterization of the modern housewife.
I compare her to Perec, primarily, due to the (unnamed) narrator’s eye: “On the table is half a grapefruit, a small pile of coffee grounds, an almost empty glass of milk, a fork, a spoon, a plate, a blackening banana peel.” And underneath the surface, even in the supposed messiness of her listed-off observations, there is something extremely mathematical. The narrator knows exactly where and how something should be (e.g. “In the morning, I notice a smear on one of the window-panes”). And yes, the previous example was more of a comparison of Perec and the unnamed narrator, but Dutton herself works in a similar, playful manner when she details an entire day in the matter of three sentences: “In the morning, over coffee and eggs, I’m exhorted to be an individual. In the afternoon we wash our cars. At night I’m restricted to a relatively confined social circle.” God, that makes me sad, that a day could be summed up so quickly, but my happiness in Dutton’s success to pull it off rises to the top.
I love how boring this book is. Let me rephrase: I love that the form matches the content. There’s a lot of repetition, and the book is one, 140-page long paragraph. In The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa wrote that one of the two principles of all good style is “To say what you feel exactly as you feel it—clearly if it is clear; obliquely, if oblique; confusedly, if confused.” The narrator feels stuck in a very Lolly Willowes-like captivity, where society has already lived her life for her, and one day becomes the next without so much as a line break or escape route. I find it funny that, in spite of its parallel theme, SPRAWL is almost the complete opposite of The Book of Disquiet. Where Pessoa deals mainly with thoughts, Dutton illustrates anxiety and disquietude with observations, as mentioned above. It’s not that the narrator doesn’t possess the capacity to think, but it seems that she prefers to silence her thoughts and focus on the external, so as not to realize how absolutely alone she is. In one of the few sections where her true-self slips in, she spirals down the rabbit hole of the power of the mind:
Meanwhile, that tree outside the window can be sad if I think it so. If not, I might think everything is fine, so the tree is, the roof with the squirrels on it is, everything is fine even if a fire engine comes down the street as fast as possible, that tree is green and I am full of compassion. What a nice tree. Everyone says so. I can’t even decide if I’m one of them.
This book could be read two ways: as a novel, which would completely shatter whatever notions of the novel you may have; or, as a single poem, which I suggest. When I started to look at is as a prose poem, I lost my need for the descriptions of additional characters—although there are some!—and the help of a plot. I began riding the words themselves, and transforming into this very specific woman in this very specific place and time. Or, of course, you could read it however you see fit. I will say, though, that no matter how you read the book, whether as novel or a poem, SPRAWL is the suburban homemaker’s response to “Howl” and should be read by all, especially those living blindly, waiting for The American Dream to pop up.
P.S. Make note of Dutton’s use of fruits and flowers, letters, and the cat. I have a hunch that all of them are symbols for the narrator herself.