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.
The primary rhetorical devices here are irony and compression, for example, of metonymy and complicity: “Babies stand in the water in plastic diapers.” It’s not just that plastic diapers near water stands for oceanic pollution. It’s that oceanic pollution stands for human extinction1 and thus so do babies: birth is death?
As J. M. Coetzee wrote of Kafka’s “The Burrow,” in Sprawl, time stops, “one moment does not flow into the next—on the contrary, each moment has the threat or promise of being…a timeless forever, unconnected to, ungenerated by, the past.” Burrowing is the opposite of sprawling, though both indicate at once threats of incursion and strategies of expansion. While both verbs are also nouns, Dutton’s sprawl is unspecified, lacks the article, and is, thus, everywhere at once, viral, ever encroaching upon habitats, an over-exposed car-and-lawn-centric placeless-place, the inevitable result of the logic of eternal “growth” and its twin, over-consumption.
1 For among other things, it’s oceanic phytoplankton that produces oxygen. We live or die by the health of our oceans.