The American mind as a sensual, internal elaboration of objects

News Section, Reviews

November 2nd, 2012


(Reviews) S P R A W L

The Brooklyn Rail

The Rule of Sprawl


Originally published October, 2010.


In her essay “Photography: A Little Summa” Susan Sontag wrote, “To be modern is to live, entranced, by the savage autonomy of the detail.” She’s talking specifically about seeing, about how photographs, being themselves details, “seem like life.” Every percussive sentence of Danielle Dutton’s witty debut, Sprawl, a novel riffing, among other things, on “domestic still life” photographs by Laura Letinsky, is an autonomous detail. These details, these sentences, do not so much accumulate or build as, well, sprawl, while story eddies underneath, a current under a surface littered with bobbing disposables, pictures of a life’s objects, be they material or psychic. If, like the commodities she describes, such details seem at once to describe and cancel history, they also advance an interiority whose innerseam is inseparable from landscape-as-market, which is to say, the American mind as a sensual, internal elaboration of objects.

The accretion of these kinds of sentences, each one a “line of flight” to use an outmoded phrase, rather than a cause leading inexorably to an effect, alters our experience of time. Dutton eschews forward motion for concentric ripples.

The narrator, an astute and highly intelligent joker, caustically if resignedly skeptical—“I do it and say, ‘I doubt it.’”—is complicit in the bloated and charming excesses she is also ironic about. The event, the “plot” as such, is mostly about the mental consequences of living in a politically and mentally immature culture. Where conformism, consumption, privilege, aesthetics, and assimilation are the modus operandi, the political disappears and time seems to flatten out, reduced to a decoratively paved digestive system. In the satirical tradition, the first-person narrator of Sprawl is fully of the folly she articulates, more or less consciously. . . .

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