Dept. of Speculationby Published 28 Jan 2014
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Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.
Jenny Offill's heroine, referred to in these pages as simply "the wife," once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes - a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions - the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.
With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation is a novel to be devoured in a single sitting, though its bracing emotional insights and piercing meditations on despair and love will linger long after the last page.
Dept. of Speculation Reviews
When I first pulled a copy of Renata Adler's Pitch Dark off the dollar remainder shelves at the Strand sometime in the early 90s, I was intrigued, mystified. ¿Que es esto? I was slaloming between the poles of philosophy and literature at the time and trying to get them to merge in some elegant way or at least not crash into a tree. I was grabbed there on 12th Street by how she alluded to Wittgenstein and Nabokov back-to-back, insisting that they belonged together, not to mention Scheherazade and a trapped raccoon and an affair which we see in the shadows and the wings and hear in echoes and stubborn silences. It was the first time I'd noticed a deckled edge on a book, and it seemed fitting for a thing that seemed to want to feel unpolished and shun smoothness of any sort. I went on to write my thesis on Wittgenstein and Adler, jazz improvisation and storytelling, symmetries made and broken, and other stuff that I can't remember anymore. Adler's book blew me away because it felt--in language and form alike--stripped down, yanked inside-out, exposed, nervy and raw. The words were like a row of naked defenders at a penalty kick that never quite happens, an ongoing state of uneasy vigilance itself the goal.
I bring this up now partly because Offill's writing recalls Adler's work, now celebrated (she's taken a Lazarus-like turn off the remainder shelf) in both form and tone, or maybe the better word is "pulse." Others have pointed out the connection, most notably Roxane Gay, who describes Offill's latest novel in the NYTimes Book Review as, "at times, reminiscent of Renata Adler’s 'Speedboat' with a less bitter edge." No question, Dept. of Speculation shares that quality of leaping from observation to observation, from memory to scholarly citation, anecdote to meta-anecdote, teeming with musings on marriage and motherhood, teaching, getting from point A to G, and the quiet, often hidden slapstick that can accompany each of these. There are fewer non-sequiturs in Offill, fewer head-scratching moments; she's quite easy to follow. I'm partial--pun intended, I suppose--to this form, which seems to be a counterweight to our longing for continuity. For doesn't a long, thick novel, broken only at the chapter-joints, promise us that we can sink in and immerse ourselves, that it will envelope us wholly (I'm thinking about you, two out of the three Pulitzer fiction finalists this year)? And I'll admit, I'm hardly immune to the allure of being swept away like that by the high tide in an ocean of prose.
But reading Offill reminds me of the pleasures of the staccato, the skittery, the odd and end, the pond and the puddle. Of course, the tradition of the fragment goes back long before Adler, and as a literary and epistemological phenomenon has been lauded by people like David Shields--even had its moment on the Colbert Report. The form goes back to Heraclitus at least, and his love of tension and contradiction are evident throughout Speculation, though Offill also names a bunch of other early philosophers, from Thales to the Stoics, rather than planting a stake firmly in one patch of philosophical ground. To borrow Zadie Smith's metaphor of literature as a "big tent," Offill's tent is small but somehow roomy, and bustling with entertaining company.
I'd say the book succeeds as well as it does by altering our sense of proportion, as we acclimate to its rhythms, its spaces and gaps, its refusal to step back too much and take in any grand view. There are real facts and pseudo-facts, definitions and redefinitions, jokes and inverted jokes, lists and indices, scientific précis and sampled lyrics and imagined conversations and confessions. Together these make their own tides. One of the most powerful strands in the book is that of outer space, and in particular of the Voyager missions, including the "Golden Record" of sounds assembled by Sagan and Co. to showcase humanity in all its (non-sexual and non-violent) glory to some alien version of eyes and ears. Apart from going behind the scenes and delving into the private lives and romantic entanglements of the scientists behind Voyager, reminding us how human they were all along, Offill aptly describes these missions as "messages in a bottle, but thrown into outer space rather than the ocean." As she points out, one will pass within 1.7 light-years of the red dwarf Ross 248 in a mere 40,000 years. What, in other words, could be more fragmentary than flinging this splinter of humanity into the void; yet, too, what could be more grand and tinged with hope?
The plot depiction is disjointed and resembles the ramblings of a bi-polar patient off his/her meds. Typically it sounds like the ramblings of a person in couples' therapy when only one partner shows up. I would like to talk about the redeeming graces of this novelette, but I could find none, It was like picking up someone's private daily journal -- and finding that it's really only meaningful to the person writing it. Unfortunately, this material just did not engage me. (The text that explains the origin of the title truly disappointed.)
Ten Reasons Why You Should Read This Extraordinary Book
10. Because it has one of the coolest back-cover endorsements (by Michael Cunningham) you will ever see.
9. Because by reading you will challenge this 1896 advice to wives, quoted in the book:
The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart, it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.8. Because at 160 pages, it is compact, provocative, healing, and lethal.
7. Because the narrator is smart, funny, offbeat, and very real, despite not being given a name.
6. Because the tiny paragraphs of which it is composed—points to ponder, fragments of feeling—are far more hit than miss, and their apparent randomness conceals a cumulative power that will take you by surprise.
5. Because you will learn more than you have ever forgotten about the history of space exploration (not to mention the long-distance vision of antelopes and attempts to photograph the human soul), but the space that Offill herself explores is inside her.
4. Because it perfectly captures the exasperation, tedium, and unbounded joy of being at home with a new baby.
3. Because, sneaking upon you unawares, it tells the inside story of an ordinary good marriage, the shock of adultery, and the terrible period afterwards when everything hangs in the balance.
2. Because it contains and exemplifies this quotation from Rilke:
Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.1. Because, when all is said and done, it is just so heartbreakingly beautiful.
Essentially, Offill carries out a kind of emotional autopsy on a young woman trying to divide her energies between bringing up a young child and keeping a husband happy without sacrificing her commitment to succeeding as a writer.
The original format of this novel – it’s written as a kind of literary scrapbook of musings, quotes and insights - reminded me at times of Fellini’s brilliant film about the fount of inspiration, 8 ½. Like the film director in Fellini’s film, Offill’s writer is bereft of inspiration, which sets her on an odyssey to sift through the rubble of her past in search of nuggets of insight.
One of the many brilliant vignettes is her discovery that her baby who rarely stops crying finds solace under very bright fluorescent lights. This means she takes him to the corner store every day and just idles away inside for as long as possible without drawing too much attention to herself. It’s such a brilliant dramatization of how much time motherhood demands you waste! The early years of motherhood are not an uninterrupted crooning of delight. But she does the delight too, and does it very well. The same goes for her cheating husband – “The thing is this: Even if the husband leaves her in this awful craven way, she will still have to count it as a miracle, all of those happy years she spent with him.” She achieves the clarity of inspiration – she can see every event from all sides.
It loses a star for me because I began to feel it lost momentum towards the end. The novel deserved a more daring and satisfactory denouement. To use an Olympic simile it came charging out of the blocks but cramped up a bit in the final lap.
‘If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.’
John Berryman once wrote ‘let all flowers wither like a party.’ Nothing lasts, even the things we love most and nurture and care for must pass, but this is not cause for sadness but merely a reason to look into each moment and let ourselves feel the emotion coursing through them. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, writer of the marvelous children’s book (and staple of my daughter’s bedtime routine) Sparky!, delivers an emotionally charged account of adulthood across marriage, childrearing, and the pains of infidelity that opens wide each moment to explore the blood of life within. Reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Offill offers brief snippets of life-as-lived that build a beautiful collage of the narrator’s existence. Sprinkled with scientific facts, philosophical quandaries and literary quotes, Offill does well by avoiding a straightforward surface telling of story in Dept. of Speculation that instead progresses through abstract connections to better occupy the mind and soul of her narrator; a wonderful approach that unfortunately feels a bit stale and preoccupied with accessibility and emotion rather than depth and beauty.
‘There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 52 weeks in a year, and X years in a life. Solve for X.’
Dept. of Speculation is quite a charming little novel, full of great spirit and humor. It feels very alive, very close and always tugging the heart strings. I particularly enjoyed the moments involving the baby daughter and the wonderment watching all her eccentricities as she begins to age and the way Offill constructs and immediacy to this unique window into the world around us. The style keeps us locked within the narrator and all her own quirks, learning to empathize and understand her through examples of life which keeps us connected when the bottom drops out for her after her husband’s infidelity. There is a sudden shift from the ‘I’ to the third-person— ‘the wife’ and ‘the husband’—which pulls the reader from such closeness to a colder impersonal perspective as she too finds herself on the outside of her own life. Subtlety and the unspoken meanings inherent in technique are of the many positive techniques employed by Offill that help the novel shimmer. Rarely is anything ever direct and it is typically through abstract association that the reader is able to deduce the truth behind the events that transpire. Even then the story is never fully formed and the readers imagination must commingle with the narrator’s inward observations to flesh out the story through a cooperative effort that further connects the reader to the character. The husband’s affair is never plainly stated at first, and it is the story of Carl Sagan leaving his wife for Ann Druyan while working on the Voyager Golden Record that supplies the context to be assumed when the husband and wife reach a breaking point¹ Other things are not so suble, such as the bedbug infestation in the couples first apartment being a foreshadowing of parasites in the marriage bed, but these metaphors still work wonderfully.
The style, with the quick snippets of life interspersed with facts and quotes, reads like David Markson-lite. While the style does help investigate the character from an abstract perspective that feels very intimate, it also feels as if it is used more for the sake of seeming experimental than actually being experimental. Speculation toys with po-mo techniques without really being po-mo itself (the novel is rather straight-forward despite the impression of not being so), and seems to be akin to the way David Mitchell takes more popular fiction plots and bridges them towards a more literary bent. Which isn’t a complaint necessarily, more an observation that the style is more flashy than substantial and has been done many times before and done better. Perhaps if the book didn’t continuously feel like it was focused more on plot (and pushing the plot forward with a bit too heavy of a hand) than the philosophical ideas presented. The quotes and facts seem more there for charm and quirkiness than to provide actual depth; the factoids used are like the sort of things you read on a cereal box, fun and thought-provoking, but not very functional. Offill seems to recognize this and keeps things fun and provides a few metafictional aspects of the character seemingly writing this story from scraps of paper she scrawls in times of stress² She also attempts to keep the story feeling relatable through very modern and non-affected writing that often has the feel of reading someones Facebook statuses. They are full of snarky charm, cursing, pop-culture phrases and other ‘normal-person in the real world’ colloquialisms. At times it made me wish she could spin a better phrase that would cut to the core, but it was used consistently and helped create a believable character.
‘She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue.’
Dept of Speculation is a quick read that takes the reader by the heart through the narrator’s adulthood of trials and tribulations. While it is not quite the work of brilliance than many have championed it, the book is also nowhere near as bad as its detractors have claimed and it is still a powerful book despite a few minor grievances. Offill does well to pull at the heart strings, though this does often seem more a novel that forces you to feel the emotion rather than let the emotion rise up naturally. The style is rather engaging and allows for a fun and insightful look into the character and her world, but feels stale but Offill covers this staleness up with rich, warm, emotional butter to still pull off a palatable treat of fiction.
'But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.'
¹ There is an irony that the narrator finds Carl and Ann’s story to be romantic despite knowing it involved a double infidelity yet cannot apply the same perspective towards her husband’s affair. ‘The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)’ Perhaps this also comments on the shift from first- to third-person as she sees an affair is easier to gloss over from the outside.
² Perhaps I had read both Adler’s Speedboat and Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd too soon before this one and Speculation fades from the comparison. However, this book shares many key aspects of both, such as the scrap writing or being friends with a philosopher like the narrator in Faces. Which is a problem with this book, it just feels like the heartfelt moments of many other books all blended into one without taking any of these elements into a fresh direction or perspective.