A Brief Review
SPRAWL: A Novel.
Reviewed by Thomas Turner.
The suburbs have been the subject of ire for many years now, but recently the recession has turned up the heat on the cynical yet attractive institution. The recession has led to what many see as the slow death of the suburbs. Rows of foreclosed homes in the Sun Belt, bastions of wealth and status symbols now boarded up or secretly lived in by squatters, these are the new suburbs.
There has been a flurry of art and critique about these places of limbo between city and country. GOOD Magazine published their Neighborhoods issue which tackled issues ranging from neighborliness to how to stop building developments around golf courses and start building them around farms. The Arcade Fire came out with a blisteringly cynical album entitled, most appropriately, The Suburbs, complete with an interactive isolation-inducing music video to go along with it. Channeling the zeitgeist, Danielle Dutton’s new novel Sprawl chronicles every waking thought of a suburban woman.
Like the much-maligned sprawl of the suburbs, the novel incarnates the sprawl and its psychological effects on suburbanites. The isolation of McMansions on islands of manicured turf. The over- friendliness of women in groups followed by their gossipy disdain for one another in private a la Desperate Housewives. The psychological deprivation stemming from the suburbs bland malaise. The yawningly cliché affairs that arise from suburban boredom and apathy. Its all here in this square sized book that amounts to a novel formed out of one giant, 143 page long paragraph. If Dutton wanted to convey the unraveling of body, soul, land and community that happens in the suburbs in a concrete and hyper-literal way she has surely accomplished her goal.
But is the prize at the end of the novel worth it, with its denouement into suburban malaise and shrug of the shoulders at the possibilities of a better world? Don’t we already know this about the suburbs? Don’t I already know “instead of learning from our mistakes, we continue to build in the exact same way”? Don’t I already know the suburbs are “based on the idea that the past never existed”? Or that suburbs are a place of “apocalyptic foreboding”? Don’t I know this about the suburbs, reading this in the living room of a suburb near New York City?
Sprawl is a novel that literally captures the essence of what is wrong with the suburbs and the moral, relational and communal ambiguities that form a troubling mix of apathy. It functions literally as the sprawl, words cast unendingly over square pages shaped like a quarter acre lot. But like the sprawl, its shiny at first, then looses its sheen, only to envelop one in the very ambiguity that it is trying so desperately to critique.