"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, bedbugs, 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 can be read in a single sitting, but there are enough bracing emotional insights in these pages to fill a much longer novel. "--
In Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill leaves plot behind in favor of brief, beautifully written vignettes in a woman's life. The unnamed protagonist begins the book as a young woman, ambitious and determined to be an "art monster," living entirely for her writing. Along the way, she gets married and has a child, entanglements that complicate and enrich her life. And that's the book, really. Her thoughts and experiences as she lives her life; not the milestones, but what it feels like to stand behind an elderly woman at the drug store, to care for a cranky infant who will not sleep, to work, resentfully, toward forgiveness.
How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. 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.
Dept. of Speculation is a short novel, almost a novella, but it feels like a much larger book. The woman is prickly and often irritated and I like characters like that. The writing is wonderful; vivid without being ornate; there isn't a superfluous word in the thing.
The book about the wife, the husband, the daughter, the girl, the sister, the sister's husband, the philosopher, and the puppy who is later the dog. And Lia. Blessed be Lia. She is named.
The wife thinks ALOT. The husband ascends, then crashes to earth, Komarov-like: a heel. The daughter plays. But not the piano. They move to the country.
Rilke says stuff. Buddha says stuff. They say stuff in italics.
The reader finishes the book. It takes longer than advertised. The reader does not get it. The reader scratches the head with the fingers. And whinges. Yes, he whinges. He cannot help himself.
We cannot help ourselves.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I assume everyone here on a site devoted to books agrees with that, but the overexamined life is not lived. The wife character, wherever she is, whoever she is with, whatever she is doing does not live. She just thinks about it so is never satisfied. Her husband cheated on her. A middle clas white man living a middle class life cheats on his wife. Hold the presses. Had she been able to live instead of just thinking about living would that have kept him from straying. No. He cheated because he cheated. That's really not her problem, though she seems to think it is. With less rumnation and a more embodied involvement in life I think Ofill could write a book I'd want to read.
I enjoyed reading this quirky, inventive novel, but I did not quite love it. Offill’s prose does give the reader an empathetic portrait of the wide range of emotions that define a marriage, from the heights of the deep affection two people feel for one another to the depths of the alienation and loneliness that accompany a betrayal of trust. The author’s choice of telling this story in the form of journal-style entries from the wife’s perspective was effective in conveying the increasingly tenuous grasp she has on the events going on around her. However, this device also proved to be somewhat limiting in terms of developing the other characters; for instance, we are told that the husband is a kind man, but there is absolutely no evidence of that kindness in the book. Still, Dept. of Speculation is a moving reflection on just how hard sustaining relationships can be and I will look forward to reading more work from this talented writer.
ONCE I STARTED READING I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.
I don't know how its fragmented structure was so effective, but it was. Aren't our lives made up of fragments? Small memories, that interesting article you read, an anecdote about a saint you learned about in school that comes back to you all of the sudden with shocking relevance.
And it is definitely the writing with this book, not the plot. The plot is every American marriage with a few standard specifics thrown in: bed bugs, a child who breaks both wrists, a husband who has an affair, a wife wondering why she traded in her chance for art, for greatness, for single-minded pursuit of her muse for the above.
Most notably, this book filled me with an incandescent rage at the cheating husband, the gutless weenie he cheated with, all of society that enables this bullshit, etc. A rage that bubbled over and spilled on all sorts of other things.
"This is another way in which he is an admirable person. If he notices something is broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy."
Some say it took them a while to get used to the writing style of this short novel and they were put off at first. I, on the contrary was rather charmed by it, though having avoided any reviews up till after I was done reading/listening to it, I didn't have much of an idea of what I was getting into, and I wasn't really sure until I was a good third of the way into it (make that an hour into the audiobook) what I was listening to really. Were these essays? Was it fiction or non? Was it a collection of stream of consciousness snippets? Was it free-form poetry? I was intrigued. Eventually, a pattern emerged. In all fairness, I saw this emergence quite early on, but it was all so disjointed, like squares of a quilt coming together... you knew the pieces were all meant to form a whole, and the more of them were shown to you, the more the pattern started to emerge, and each piece was quite lovely on it's own. But then things were revealed and it became kind of sad, yet true—I mean: real.
Then I read the NY Times review, and perhaps it's more elegantly worded, but then Roxane Gay is a professional and I'm not:
"Jenny Offill’s second novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” charts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose. A writer lives in Brooklyn. A writer lives in Brooklyn and falls in love. A writer in Brooklyn marries and has a child. A married writer in Brooklyn lives, and then there are bedbugs." ... "Seemingly significant information is doled out in inscrutable doses. Each fragment is satisfying or not, and exists unto itself but also, clearly, as part of something bigger. “Dept. of Speculation” moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others."
Shimmering fragments of prose. Yes. Each fragment existing unto itself. Yes. But also, clearly, as part of something bigger. Yes. It moves quickly, yes. Perforce, because it's such a brief work of what must be fiction. Is it though? It has such immediacy, if feels like we are invading this woman's—this woman we will only ever know as "the wife"—private life, yet she has invited us in, because this is her novel, she tells us she is a writer after all, she tells us this is her second novel, and since this is her story, she must want to share the breakdown of her marriage with us. Does it break down though? You'll have to read it for yourself.
I'm not usually a fan of authors reading their own material. There is often a reason why professional narrators are hired to record audio versions of books, but Jenny Offill does a great job with this reading. She knows her material well and she delivers it very convincingly.
I didn't think I'd like this book, because what I did know of it is that it dealt with marriage and motherhood, two topic of which I don't know much and which, I'm sorry to say, don't interest me much either, since I've been denied the opportunity to experience them for myself. But Jenny Offill invites us in and gives us the opportunity to share her experience, and I feel I've learned something along the way.
And then came the second half like a punch in the gut. Still a powerful way to tell a story, but it's too real to be called "delightful." It's like one of my own nightmares put in book form.
Reading the second half reminded me of when I squirmed my way through the movie "Before Midnight" in which Julie Delpy argues with an awkwardly aging Ethan Hawke for two hours in a way that's a little too familiar.
For the first time since I was in junior high, I'm reading contemporary books written for my age group---finally the GenX authors seem to be taking the place of the Boomers, perhaps because we're finally entering mid-life (or what used to be mid-life since "mid-life" is now supposed to be 60 or something as the Millennials and the Boomers conspire to squeeze us out of everything)---and although I've been eagerly anticipating this day, now I'm not sure that I want to read about the anxieties of those hovering in the handful of years before and after 40. It's too close. It gives me palpitations.
One of my favorite quotes from the book: "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." (p 114)
Incidentally, this book would have been interesting told in little blog posts. I'm glad it's a novel, but it would have worked as a serial blog, too.
On parenting a newborn:
There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinment dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.
He sent the girl a love letter over the radio. Later, the wife sees his playlist from that night. It is from the night before she went out of town. The night before it first happened. She listens to the songs he played one by one, ticking each of them off the list.
It's the kind of book you gulp down in one sitting and then take your time over a second pass, underlining or sticky-noting all the great snippets.
Both this and Station Eleven have turned up on a bunch of end of year best-of lists - it's easy to see why.
It looks like I am in the minority in my opinion of this book. Maybe it is just not my cup of tea, but I would not recommend it.
Once I got past that, I settled in nicely to this small novel. Our main character, known only as “the wife,” is deep into her marriage and everything has changed and she really wants to understand why.
I love the way Offill roams all over the place in her writing, almost like little poems, or moments, that link inexplicably in the way our real lives flow and link. More, more, more.
I feel like I could have gotten more out of the book if I was married or at least in a long-term relationship of my own.
"Antelopes have 10X vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.
It was still months before we'd tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I'm so weary of it all."
I also can't tell you how many times I read a paragraph that felt as though it came from my own experience, like these:
"My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles. This is the mnemonic they give her to remember the order of the planets."
"Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits."
In the end, this book provides room for the reader. It provides a captivating sketch that made me think more than I might have if the author filled in all of the blanks.
My thoughts: I've spent a lot of time thinking about Dept. of Speculation since I finished it in January. Typically, I like to write reviews soon after finishing novels, but I wanted to ponder this one. And even as I still am, I'm ready to start talking about this remarkable book.
First, I am officially a huge fan of Offill's writing. She's hilarious: "That night on TV, I saw the tattoo I wished my life had warranted. If you have not known suffering, love me. A Russian murderer beat me to it." She's wise: "For most married people, the standard pattern is a decrease of passionate love, but an increase in deep attachment." I read for the joy of her sentences as much as anything else. When I started this novel, I was enraptured and awed with her writing and unconventional structure (the chapters are vignettes of sort, and it takes some time for the plot to emerge.) I didn't particularly care where it was going, or even how it would get there; I knew I needed to be along for the ride. In a pinch, I suppose I would call this novel experimental, but it's also far more accessible than most experimental novels. Narrative structure aside, there is so much familiar material in the vignettes to enjoy. At times it read almost like a stand-up routine that ends up coming together.
While I loved the experience of reading this novel (and truly savored it), I was somewhat underwhelmed with it as a whole. I loved each of the parts, but I expected the sum to add up to something quite different. Perhaps because I called this novel experimental as I read (and spent so much time thinking about its structure), that I lost sight of trusting Offill and enjoying the journey on which she took me.
Favorite passage: "Three things no one has ever said about me:
You are very mysterious.
You make it look so easy.
You need to take yourself more seriously.
The verdict: Dept. of Speculation is a fascinating, thoughtful, slim novel. As I read, I was utterly enraptured. It was so good that when I was finished I was oddly disappointed because I wished the collection of so many moments of brilliance added up to a bit more as a whole. Still, it's a novel I'll continue to re-read for years to come, and I'll continue to savor the prose of Jenny Offill.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The whole novel is comprised of the short bits of wisdom, whimsy or sangfroid that one underlines or copies into a chapbook. And they make a finely woven, coherent, heartfelt story. It is a combination of technique and heart that works well.
From the snippets, it's clear to see the wife didn't do all the things she imagined she would. As a young woman, she planned to be an art monster, to be creative, to matter.
For years, I kept a Post-it note above my desk. WORK NOT LOVE! was what it said. It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.
Now she teaches and tries to survive a colicky baby. Her husband, a Midwest transplant who is famously kind, makes soundscapes of the city. He is introduced to her by her friend, who she calls the philosopher and who is an adjunct professor and late night DJ. Offill deftly chronicles what it's like to be at home with a baby who has colic:
After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again.
My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn't know them.
She was small enough then to still fall asleep on your chest. Sometimes I fed you dinner with a spoon so you wouldn't have to raise your arms and wake her.
Offill writes about different kinds of love with vivid, wistful remembrance in only three paragraphs. Some writers cannot do that in hundreds of pages. She has kept in only the important bits, but sometimes reveals them explicitly and other times obliquely. Taken together, they tell us about these characters without names and their hearts.
She also weaves in quotes and bits from other writers, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Buddhist philosophers and this:
Advice for wives circa 1896: (italics) 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.
The only cliched part of the story is that the husband is unfaithful. Up until the very end, it's not clear if they will stay together or part. But either way, the feeling of dread has been introduced. Whatever happens, this happened, and it cannot be erased.
The narrator is having a hard time holding it together. She wanted to be an artist, a writer, a monster who lived for art and art alone. Even if she had not fallen in love and had a family, it's easy to see that life probably would not have turned out exactly as she planned. It just doesn't work that way. But she deals with words, with art, every day as part of her real life.
There is, at the end, the inference that she may see this reality, this ability to live with other people who mean so much to her and the art that has been as much a reason to live as those she loves. That makes Dept. of Speculation as much a work of art as it does a faithful chronicle of what the small moments of family life are really like.