“Dear Mrs. McLuhan: The end of a tube of toothpaste can cause guilty feelings and a sense of alienation. It’s a question of family values. You make the call.”
Imagine literally unpacking et cetera. This is what Dutton’s experimental novel, Sprawl, aspires to do. Sprawl is a double entendre—written in single sentences with no paragraph breaks whatsoever, its prose affects a sprawling internal monologue of a female protagonist; the title also locates the novel in the suburbs, which, like et cetera, could go on forever.
In a letter at the beginning of the book, the author addresses the reader through thinly veiled narration about her literary project:
Dear Mrs. Baxter, Welcome. Your earnest and expensive skepticism is otherworldly. For this reason, I advise you to take two or three sheets of paper and make a journal of anything remarkable that occurs in the next few days. Idle romances, typographical reproductions, eye- and ear-witness testimony, the reality of our special community—I recommend all these pleasures to you now.
More than just recommending the pleasures of being cultural tourists in our collective American reality show, Dutton crafts these pleasures through the narrator’s keen observations, perceptions, and remarks. She takes sentences of average length and conforms them to a woman’s uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness as our narrator, a housewife in a fraying marriage, reports on life with wide-eyed fascination, as though experienced accidentally through her body:
I nod and return to my book: “Take any normal street of average length and just consider all that fucking!”
(–what teenagers ponder: sex as the mechanical act as opposed to felt experience.)
A moment after the narrator’s exclamatory thought, sex resurfaces in local scenery: a kid on the street says, “Rocketry.” Another kid says, “Oomph.” Broccoli quiche on the table “arouses” her. Over time, her inner monologue distills the strange and sensual essence of the suburbs from its profusion of stuff; though sometimes overdetermined, this structure allows Sprawl to deliver small, associative delights.
Our narrator is by no means a housewife of the 1950s, hyper-aware as she is of the nature and appearance of her reality. But the suburbs have ensnared her in a number of cultural clichés: isolation, divorce, shopping. To convey this, Dutton constructs her inner monologue using neighborly letters, inner reflections, and descriptive scene setting. It is an original approach to a conventional subject, a challenge to the basic ingredients of novels (setting, character development, point of view), and a reinvestigation of Victorian fascination with the inner lives of distraught, socially confined women. Dutton’s rendition, because of its strict commitment to continuous run-on feels strange and new, even while echoing Molly Bloom’s exasperated soliloquy at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses. Gertrude Stein’s tender inventories can also be heard throughout, along with Dutton’s sustained deadpan verging on sarcasm.
By trafficking in the narrator’s perceptions, the author shows storytelling to be a self-reflexive process of consciousness—the desire to construct narrative trumps even the absence of plot. If you read fiction for rich character development, a twisting-turning storyline, or closure, Sprawl is an unlikely choice. Dutton’s aim is more aesthetic than narrative: to show these all-too-familiar surroundings with startlingly new eyes. Tireless lists of the domestic environment, the vacuousness of suburban sprawl, the tension between extreme interiority and exteriority—these compel the reader of Sprawl, though at times the repetition is numbing.
At the same time, Sprawl’s investigation of the American dream, and its female point of view, speak to the zeitgeist. The reign of reality TV, shows of domestic intrigue like Desperate Housewives, and those with more existentialist musings like The Big C, have turned a female gaze upon this all-too-familiar landscape. As if to further place the book in the contemporary moment, another letter punctures the saccharine tone of the bygone ‘50s with an anti-materialist critique that is all too contemporary:
Dear Mrs. McLuhan, The end of a tube of toothpaste can cause guilty feelings and a sense of alienation from progress. There are support networks for these kinds of things—feminine, domesticating—these parades of objects up and down such as control-top pantyhose, handbags, lemon-scented versus unscented detergent. It’s a question of family values… You make the call, Mrs. McLuhan… Warmly, etc.