Review: Attempts at a Life
Five star remixes.
In her debut collection, Attempts at a Life, Danielle Dutton combines floral umbrellas with strange dreams, the English countryside, and Virginia Woolf, setting the stage for a well-read book of flash fiction. Often taking the form of vignettes, Dutton's stories narrate various biographies and autobiographies, exploring the ways narrative expectations shape one's own life story. Written in a lyrical style that borders on the poetic, the works in Attempts at a Life question such literary conventions, frequently manipulating reader's expectations while at the same time scrutinizing them.
Structured as an ongoing series of revisionist texts, Dutton's book presents 'Hester Prynne' [The Scarlet Letter] alongside allusions to Louis Zukovsky and William Carlos Williams, creating a collage-like array of rewritten literary works. Using this approach to comment on artistic conventions of the past, Attempts at a Life blends flash fiction with the literary essay, creating its own worlds from "drawing rooms" and "birds with unusual claims to song." A piece entitled 'The Portrait of a Lady' exemplifies this trend. Dutton narrates, for instance:
I was a tomboy and fought on open fields. The days passed unmarked and I called them: Mrs. Days. "She is a different child!" I heard the women say even as they were forgetting me. And while my sisters practiced their stitches in the parlor from the light of a beaded lamp, I stood on the battlefield with what I thought was a gun in my hand, but it turned out to be a bright green bird. Thankfully an opportunity arose to chart well-charted republics. [p. 14]
In contemporizing Henry James' classic novel by the same title, Dutton suggests that his depictions of independent-minded ladies like heroine Isabel Archer remain dramatized and unrealistic when compared to everyday women, an idea that she conveys through her narrator's self-characterization. While describing her supposed alienation from more domestic female characters, who "practice their stitches in the parlor," Dutton's narrator uses a high register and a mocking tone, implying through such choices that Isabel Archer's life story remains an unattainable, impractical ideal. Like other works in Attempts at a Life, 'The Portrait of a Lady' pairs such commentary with repeated themes and motifs that link the individual pieces within collection, of which past depictions of women, narrative tropes, and the resonance of literature with one's life story are merely a few examples.
Dutton's treatments of other Victorian classics, which she intersperses throughout the book, are also impressive. Because Attempts at a Life explores the literary life history as well as the personal, she demonstrates that the two often intersect, raising questions about the role of fiction in constructing one's own narrative. Particularly apparent in a story entitled 'Jane Eyre,' Dutton conflates the events of Charlotte Bronte's novel with an ongoing commentary, suggesting that such dated depictions of womanhood still shape lives today. She writes, for example:
I took long walks through generous woods and sometimes even on the roof to look at distant hills and (like all heroines, ever dissatisfied) to imagine what might be past them. I have a certain amount of palpable self-distrust as well as matter-of-factness, but stand in possession of a heartily romantic imagination replete with the usual voids and sprites and turbulent seas. [p 3-4]
In this passage, Dutton juxtaposes the tropes to which Bronte adhered with parodies of such conventions. By noting that Jane is the typical "heroine" who remains "ever dissatisfied," as well as giving an oversimplified analysis of the "romantic" sensibilities that permeate the novel, Dutton critiques such traditions as being formulaic and stifling. Similar in many respects to the portrayal of Henry James' heroine, 'Jane Eyre' raises significant questions about the manner in which individuals appropriate such conventions in narrating their own story, suggesting through her use of a narrator who self-consciously mimics Bronte's tone and imagery that this story has determined the course of many life histories.
While depicting a variety of autobiographies, Dutton reveals the absurdity of the rules that individuals adhere to in conveying their own experiences, often examining the impact of culture on creating them. In doing so, the stories in Attempts at a Life continue their dialogue with the works that came before it, and exchange that proves compelling throughout. These themes are exemplified by the story 'Everybody's Autobiography, or, Nine Attempts at a Life,' in which she writes:
Raised in an orphanage on the wrong side of town, still I learned all the classical notions and good writing. Thus, I embarked on the path of a newspaperman, which took me on fine adventures where the direct treatment of the thing was often called for. [p 24]
Modeled on Everybody's Autobiography, in which Gertrude Stein examines American definitions of success by creating a narrator who personifies them, Dutton's piece similarly suggests that societal factors also play a large part in shaping the stories that one tells oneself. A thoughtful meditation on the ways one's identity remains determined by outside influences, 'Nine Attempts at a Life' borrows from Stein while commenting on the apparent artistry that one often finds in her work. Through phrases like "I embarked on the path of a newspaperman…where the direct treatment of the thing was often called for," Dutton reveals Stein's Everybody's Autobiography as being self-conscious, a work that at times highlights its own artistry instead of its subject. Like Stein's own work, however, the stories in Attempts at a Life do not merely critique or create, but instead carry on a dialogue with literary tradition.
Attempts at a Life is a compelling, enigmatic read. Ideal for readers of the fiction and the literary essay alike, Danielle Dutton's new book is a significant contribution to contemporary experimental writing. Five stars.
[Kristina Marie Darling]
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Attempts at a Life by Danielle Dutton
Tarpaulin Sky Press
Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where she is currently pursuing a master's degree. She is the author of five chapbooks of poetry and nonfiction. Her criticism has appeared or will appear in New Letters, The Mid-American Review, Big City Lit, CutBank, Smartish Pace, Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, and other journals. Recent awards include residencies from the Centrum Foundation and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.