The Multiverse that Is Danielle Dutton’s “Sprawl”
When I first bought Danielle Dutton’s Sprawl (Wave Books, 2018) I wasn’t in the right mood for its peculiar gifts as a novel. I vaguely remember struggling for twenty pages or so then giving up and putting it back on my to-read bookshelf. This last act is key, because it didn’t go in the pile of books to be donated to the public library book sale. I must have realized that the fault was with me, not the book. I just wasn’t ready for Sprawl.
But now it is five years and hundreds of books later and apparently I am ready for the perverse genius that is Sprawl. As I began to read it this time, a sense of giddy vertigo ascended within me. With each sentence, Dutton was building up a unique world and simultaneously hollowing it out. She was showing us a suburbia that looked a bit like every American suburbia that ever existed, and yet with every sentence it turned weirder and weirder. Dutton lets slip in the book’s third sentence exactly what she is doing in Sprawl.
This place is as large as any other town. Each new day there is the coming through of sunlight between the oaks. Things fall and because of this there is a kind of discontinuous innovation.
“Discontinuous innovation.” I can’t think of a better way to describe what Dutton has created with Sprawl than a novel that propels itself forward through discontinuous innovation. At the sentence level there is only chaos. Sprawl has an attention span of two or three sentences at most before it forgets what it is about and moves on to something else. In this sense, the restless prose of Sprawl is yet another genetic descendant of Renata Adler’s fragmented 1976 novel Speedboat. Here’s an example from early in Sprawl, narrated by Mrs. Haywood Henry, our sometimes host.
In this place we eat chicken and peas at least once a week. Once a month we organize three weeks’ worth of leftovers and once upon a time Mrs. Richardson introduced a new trend that was spatially interesting; it was intended to embellish our looks like poodle skirts or microwaves. We smoked clove cigarettes and stood in the Millers’ backyard. I refer to these as “the early times.” And other trends: We wrote poems. I wrote them with Lisle. I wrote her poems and she wrote mine. We followed each other around town without looking, like tribal migrations. Today, Haywood uses language to articulate a room and I’m supposed to move inside it.
One day our narrator thinks that her neighborhood represents a “utopian vision” and another day she thinks that “the smells in the neighborhood reach a peak of perfection: meat and sauces, fresh-cut grasses, hot dogs and stacks of pancakes.” But underneath the perfection there are signs of rottenness. “I visit the public library. . . and then I write aggressive letters of extraordinary vividness and humor.” The narrator regularly writes letters of complaint to her neighbors. There are evidently standards that must be maintained.
Dear Mrs. Millet, This may seem a bit extreme. It may take more of your time than was previously calculated. . . Mrs. Millet, it’s time you adopt a practical approach to native plants, to the aesthetic and financial requirements of residential land use, to cutting down that spruce tree and considering the greater good. I mean to be frank, Mrs. Millet.
Dear Mr. Mayor, I suppose you expect me to begin with some shocking new discovery. I see your car parked on the street outside my house as I write this. Does that shock you Mr. Mayor? In particular, Mr. Mayor, the extraordinary discourse that you insist on forcing before me, it disturbs me. My own vehicle is washed clean. Do you get me?
Other letters are simply batty.
Dear Mrs. Sharp, I am one of the best letter writers in this 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 party.
With all of the current interest in chatbots and ChatGPT, there are moments when Sprawl reads as if written by a chatbot that can’t quite get English down pat. There are strange word slippages, like “the new trend that was spatially interesting.” Or there is this sentence: “In the morning I look like pudding,” the narrator writes one day, “or I sound like a mosquito squeaking under a mattress, or I fuck like a secretary with her hands full of paper.”
There are moments when I think our narrator glimpses the nature of her claustrophobic environment and wonders what is beyond the paper-thin barriers that entrap her. “Is this fast trip through my own little strip of time my own? Am I on it?”
It’s like I can’t rest confident in the political circumstance of one small space, this one, or right outside the window, or across the street, or over by the train station. As if I’m delicate. As if I’m deserted. . . 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. The cat climbs in and out of empty boxes in the hall. I sleep with the window open and imagine.
But eventually Haywood, her husband, finally decides “that what we have is a kind of awkwardness worth saving.”
His systematic attempts to be a husband are my instructions for the next few hours. We move behind the couch where he presses his fingers into my neck. He puts his toes in my vagina. “Good God,” I cry. I lean against the wall. My face is probably magnificent.
The marriage seems to have been saved and our narrator goes off on a binge of letter-writing. She binds her letters to Lisle in “attractive blue ribbons” because “it might be that these letters are more satisfying to me than ordinary personal relationships.”
My reading of Sprawl is just one of many possible readings. There is a democracy to Dutton’s writing that opens up interpretations of practically any flavor, by which I mean that no one sentence is privileged above another. The chaotic quality that I mentioned earlier means that there really aren’t any subordinate sentences or key moments that direct the reader to the author’s intentions. This gives Sprawl a kind of flatness, so that it’s up to the reader to decide where the emphasis or drama lies or if there is any at all. Dutton’s goal is, in part, to estrange us from our own world and then abandon us. It’s up to us what we do there. We can put the book back on the shelf or give it to the library book sale or continue to stare in wonder at the words that construct Dutton’s marvelously twisted version of the universe.
Dutton has spoken and written about the manner in which artist Laura Letinsky’s photographs assisted in the deeply visual world building that takes place in Sprawl. There are domestic scenes in the book which are literal transcriptions of Letinsky photographs from her book Hardly More Than Ever: Photographs 1997-2004 (Chicago: Renaissance Society, 2004). Last year, Dutton even wrote a small, beautifully illustrated book called A Picture Held Us Captive (Ithaca, NY: Image Text Ithaca Press, 2022), about ekphrastic writing, some of which detailed her experience using Letinsky’s images. “There’s a bizarre plasticity to them. Everything in this landscape seems about to collapse. Life feels staged and the stuff of life half rotten. The idea of home is suddenly suspect.” I found this connection between Letinsky and Dutton fascinating, but ultimately distracting. There’s simply no point for the general reader to be wondering if every still life description in Sprawl has its origins in a Letinsky photograph.
Still, Dutton’s short essay in A Picture Held Us Captive has much to say about a certain strain of contemporary fiction. “My experiences with visual art are so often what make the world strange for me, and it is when the world is strange that I am most compelled to write.” In her wide-ranging essay, Dutton references Lydia Davis, Eley Williams, Georges Perec, Renee Gladman, Amina Cain, John Keene, Nathalie Leger, and Ben Lerner as writers who have written novels or stories based on works of visual art. In reality, this could be a much longer list of writers.
I still remember the frisson I got when I first read Samuel Beckett’s Molloy more than half a century ago. The world was suddenly made strange and for the first time I could see and understand things that had previously made no sense to me. This is why, for me, the best literature is not that which makes me cozy and comfortable, but that which makes the world strange and gives me new eyes, new perspectives—literature like Danielle Dutton’s Sprawl.