Everything is different, but over time, to a certain extent, nothing really changes

September 19, 2011 § Leave a comment


“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. You’ll need to keep track. You’ll have to be strong, Mrs. Baxter. Everything is different, but over time, to a certain extent, nothing really changes. Such is the critical authenticity of our every historical moment. Focus on apprehensible objects and their previously unapprehended relationship to other objects around your house or this place (your body to fish, glass to a quality of mind). It’s a good deal of fun. Yours, etc.” (16-17)

These are not the opening words of Danielle Dutton’s magnificent recent novel Sprawl (Siglio Press, 2010), but they do most clearly articulate both the approach she takes and all that she appears to regard as being what is at stake in it. Sprawl is, as I take it, its narrator’s own first-person “journal of anything remarkable that occurs in the next few days.” We shouldn’t get too hung up about whether she is literally keeping a journal. The important part is that the novel presents us with a woman’s “earnest and expensive skepticism”—her inner state of mind & being, as it were, that come as a result & cost of being a part of the world. And her world is costly indeed, for it is that of the suburbs.

The city she observes from afar is never named. It sits in the distance and is much like a foreign tongue she knows reasonably well, as her husband travels there daily for work and she occasionally for leisure, but for that remains foreign all the same. It is very much a part of her world. In fact, I would argue that despite its physical and narrative location, the city in the distance remains very much at the center of things—of the narrator’s world and thoughts. That she is physically dislocated from the center of her own thoughts & being, the city, enhances the sense of sensory distortion that characterizes the novel. At first blush, this may imply that Dutton is intent on bashing the ‘burbs (its homogeneity, strip malls, etc.); or perhaps that she will take the resignedly nostalgic route we see from time to time these days. She does neither.

“Everything is different, but over time, to a certain extent, nothing really changes.” The world of Dutton’s narrator is one familiar to those who grew up or live in the suburbs. There are here the customary concerns about a neighbor’s lawn care and gaudy ornaments; an incongruity between sufficient space and novelty; nameless children expressing the boredom their parents keep at bay by working and with hobbies (”One of the nameless kids who wander the town sits outside the window drinking coffee from a paper cup. He rocks back and forth rhythmically, with a sharp jerk at the end of each forward motion, like he’s waking himself up one second and falling asleep the next” [30)]. There is, of course, a uniformity of action. Repetitions are followed and routines are honored. But if the sameness is “only” cosmetic, and thus superficially surface-level, this does not diminish its effect on the individuality of purpose. (“I’m shocked to discover I don’t even want to accomplish my goals. I associate myself with the American frontier and sort of want to enclose myself in some small nomadic unit. I migrate over sidewalks and lawns. Then I supply sexually constipated and hypocritical natives with all kinds of bonuses and obligatory rituals. . . . This is what it means to a national grown up. It’s a kind of supportive and spontaneous process involving naive, imitative, and prudish culture. Its critics and creators seem to just go on living. At night, from my position on the front porch, I see it as a vast complex of apocalyptic foreboding” [109].)

Dutton’s narrator describes all this by way of homing in on what she calls the suburban’ “lack of logical relationships,” which is for her an aspect of its accidental, intuitive beauty (124). The reader may disagree with that sentiment, but I certainly did not insofar as it relates to the writing she uses to express it. All this sameness around the narrator is rendered strange by way of its untold “unapprehended relationships” that build upon one another in not necessarily progressive but expansive ways. Two more or less random examples, followed by one of my favorite passages from the book, illustrate this very well:

  • “These days Haywood and I enjoy walking through the lawn-equipment area in a department store in the mall. There’s a smell of chemical fertilizers and a real-life sparrow is trapped in the branches of a potted tree chirping at passing shoppers. In other sectors of the mall we pick out bathroom tile or formal wear or pretzels. We return home and change clothes or put things in cupboards. We hold hands in the dining room. We watch the evening news and learn about weather, competitive ping-pong, hot air balloons, war, and the latest scandals. Hundreds of people are nominated for awards. We watch the parades on television. Haywood asks, ‘What ever happened to real cheese?” (24)
  • “Meanwhile, in a yard across the street a life-size polar bear wears a purple hat and bobs on the grass. Cars arrive in clumps. Pigeons peck at dirt” (113).
  • “I am all sorts of things in themselves: I am in character, I am in mint condition, I am in my head, I am in luck, I am in need, I am in vogue, I am in the red, I am in deep, I am in tune, I am in trouble, I am in control, I am in the way” (35).

I appreciate the immediacy of details the narrator brings to her world. It’s not quite the same as stream of consciousness, but it is not altogether alien either. Her thoughts are not fractured, though, like so many of our SoC literary heroes (Joyce’s Bloom, Woolf’s’ Dalloway, etc.). They may appear random and in need of interpretive suturing, but I take them to be supremely constructive—in the sense that they are creating as much of her world as they are conveying her sensory impressions of a world that already exists. The world made strange, indeed. That this creativity comes by way of confession is particularly interesting, I find: “I explore what has already begun to recede. The world beneath my feet is a multiplicity of partial worlds. If I were to try to record an immediate impression of every lasting influence on my life I might find them in the gaps between lying and sentiment” (121). The cadence of this world’s construction & this narrator’s confession in Sprawl may in fact be both duplicitous and sentimental, but it is a sheer delight and I highly recommend you check it out.

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