Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
With the release of Jenny Offill’s acclaimed second novel, there have been comparisons to Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a correlation that makes me sincerely regret missing that seminar in grad school. It would have been the perfect grounding with which to enter Offill’s wonderful, novel-in-fragments. Though describing the book in terms of fragments, there’s a risk, I suppose, that some might view the book as emotionally cool and hard to follow; that because this is a novel that embraces style, and Dept. of Speculation has plenty of it, the framework of story will be compromised. But be assured: with Offill at the narrative helm, you will never lose your way.
Speedboat, released in 1976, received accolades for its fragmented narrative, along with a confessional, neurotic and very smart narrator. But there were inevitably those who weren’t fans. In his review, Anatole Broyard wrote, “The book struck me as little more than a series of witty jottings, a collection of small contemporary, curiosities… As far as I can see there is no progression, no gathering coherence, in these snippets.” Almost forty years later, a collection of witty jottings, of snippets and small contemporary curiosities sounds intriguing—especially when there’s a guiding intelligence on the order of Offill’s.
The novel centers on an unnamed narrator, known only as “I” in the book’s first half, and in the second, as a character known only as “the wife.” The title refers to an imaginary locale she and her husband use for the return address in their letters to each other. The wife is smart, sensitive, at times overwrought, and apparently a reader of philosophy—she quotes Horace and Ovid and Wittgenstein, among others. She’s also a writer, and in her younger days had aspirations to be an “art monster;” that is, one who lives and breathes work, a person for whom only art is important. And yet, as happens to so many “art monsters,” she becomes “a wife,” and in time, has a child and stays home to care for her. “The wife” also happens to be in the dreaded in-between books state, and so takes a ghost-writing job, a vanity project by a wealthy guy seeking to write the history of the space program.
The space-book-ghost-writing thread affords all manner of wonderful tangents—about stars, planets, astronauts, failed missions, etc., and is just one of the ways Offill incorporates the wider world into this narrator’s view, doing so through layered vignettes, observations, quotes and memories that taken together, feel like life—the self-talk, rumination, and the experience of emotion over time—but also make for wonderful metaphors and juxtapositions alongside daily life. For example, when a case of bed bugs descends on the household, the clothes have to be cooked in a special cooker. The wife reports, “Anything we are not wearing must be immediately bagged and sealed. ‘We’re living like astronauts,’ my husband says, inching over to his side of the bed.”
The collage style isn’t the likeliest for a story reliant on external events, but Offill’s skills lean in both directions. The ever-shifting thoughts circle back around and move clearly through time and space. And though Dept. of Speculation employs incongruity, irony, and frequent use of the literary device known as ellipsis, not those three little dots that signify omitted words (though she does use them quite a bit), but the narrative strategy of omitted detail. The gaps are never jarring, and the presence of irony satisfies as it illuminates character. And where the use of ellipses is concerned, I understood early on in the book that its use was for the reader’s benefit: it allows us to make the connections the character does.
And, as it happens, the trait of paying attention is crucial to the plot, a fallibility on the narrator’s part. Wait—did Offill knowingly build this in? Near the end of the novel, we are told: “The Zen master Ikkyu was once asked to write a distillation of the highest wisdom. He wrote only one word: Attention.”
Without giving too much away, when trouble ensues in the marriage, one of the underlying causes (and effects) appears to be the wife’s fundamental distractedness, her inattention. At first, pregnancy and a colicky baby would appear to be factors, but we begin to suspect that her deferred plans to make art may well be the cause. In addition to being a distracted wife and mother, our protagonist is a bit of a curmudgeon:
The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out. A home has a perimeter. But sometimes our perimeter was breached by neighbors, by Girl Scouts, by Jehovah’s Witnesses. I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way.
And yet we feel for her. Her aspirations, after all, center on her work, a dream the husband blithely characterizes one day as “the road not taken.” There are no villains here, and in fact, the troubles the couple endure point to the rapture and existential bleakness in the seemingly mundane subject of marriage and family.
The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.
For every woman (and man, for that matter) who’s held their creative life in check while caring for a child, being told their dream is “the road not taken” can be soul-crushing. And for the wife, it is. Now that I think of it, “soul-crushing” is a term the husband uses to describe his own job. She also has a way with the small moment. In the New Yorker, James Wood pointed out Offill’s paragraphs are reminiscent of Lydia Davis’s short texts:
When we first saw the apartment, we were excited that it had a yard but disappointed that the yard was filled by a large jungle gym that we didn’t need. Later, when we signed the lease, we were happy about the jungle gym because I’d learned that I was pregnant and we could imagine its uses. But by the time we moved in, we had found out that the baby’s heart had stopped and now it just made us sad to look out the window at it.
As the memories and events accumulate, Offill conjures a tale of ordinary love that is extraordinary in the telling; through connections on and off the page and echoes that create the most satisfying of textual connections. You can check out Ed Champion’s interview with Jenny Offill here.