Gertrude Stein channeling Alice B. Toklas writing an Arcades Project

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January 3rd, 2013



(Review) S P R A W L

The Believer


Originally published September 2010


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.

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