Dept. of Speculation

by Jenny Offill

Paperback, 2014

Call number




Vintage (2014), Edition: Reprint, 192 pages


"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. "--… (more)

Media reviews

Offill’s brief book eschews obvious grandeur. It does not broadcast its accomplishments for the cosmos but tracks the personal and domestic and local, a harrowed inner space. It concentrates its mass acutely, pressing down with exquisite and painful precision, like a pencil tip on the white of the nail.
6 more
Dept. of Speculation is a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity and sweetness.... Dept. of Speculation is a shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don't quite understand, until they give in and read it too.
Offill is a smart writer with a canny sense of pacing; just when you want to abandon the fragmented puzzle pieces of the novel, she reveals a moment of breathtaking tenderness ... especially engaging when it describes new motherhood ... For better or worse, this is not so much a book about their marriage; it is a book about the wife’s marriage. It would be interesting to read the other story to this marriage, to know more of the husband, the father — but Offill still makes it seem as if the wife’s version of the marriage is story enough and, perhaps, the only story that matters.
From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers. There is complexity to the central partnership; Offill folds cynicism into genuine moments of love. It may be difficult to truly know what happens between two people, but Offill gets alarmingly close.
Jenny Offill's novel Dept. of Speculation, which weighs in at 192 pages soaking wet and includes a fair amount of white space, is extremely short for a novel. It's an unusual book not only in terms of its size, but also its form. Make no mistake, this is an experimental novel. By which I mean that the narrative isn't a series of flowing scenes that keep you reassuringly grounded in plot, but a collection of vignettes, observations and quirky details that are sometimes pulled from real life.... Offill has successfully met the challenge she seems to have given herself: write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And do it in a series of bulletins, fortune-cookie commentary, mordant observations, lyrical phrasing. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone's domestic life.
If Rainer Maria Rilke had written a novel about marriage, it might look something like this: a series of paragraphs, seldom exceeding more than a dozen lines, sometimes without much apparent connection to the text on either side.
Popping prose and touching vignettes of marriage and motherhood fill Offill’s (Last Things) slim second book of fiction. Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises.... Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it’s her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
What did you do today, you'd say when you got home from work, and I'd try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.

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.
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LibraryThing member maritimer
The reader finishes the book.

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.
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LibraryThing member froxgirl
Quirkiest little book! Short chapters. Can be read in a night. Author is a stone genius. Marriage is seemingly falling apart despite best husband ever. Um, well, maybe not best. They retreat to the Little Theatre of Hurt Feelings. They have a daughter. You read and love this book. You stare at the author's picture and she looks pretty skeptical. Her genius is revealed in 46 chapters of all big and small observations that make you wish you'd written them. You didn't. You can't now, it's too late, it would be too derivative. But you can read it. And I'm going to buy it. And you dare not miss it.… (more)
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
This book is beautifully written, but I was not charmed overall. People are starving and dying and being terrorized in the real world, and this character just whines about her poor, unfortunate middle class white life. I know troubles come to all, and the world is not about a competition of sorrows, but it just seems this woman needs some direction so that she can feel the joy inherent in her life.
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.
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LibraryThing member browner56
Just shy of her thirtieth birthday, a woman decides she will never be married and concentrates instead on her work as a writer, an editor, and a teacher. Then she meets a man in sort of a friend-of-friend way and a love affair quickly blossoms. The couple soon does marry and they have a daughter, who becomes the center of the woman’s world. All appears to be well as they pursue artistic careers and raise their child from a colicky baby into a precocious young girl. However, life does not stay perfect and the husband begins to look for—and finds—something the wife can no longer give him. The woman is devastated and wonders how she can go on; the man is torn in two directions and does not know how to fix things. Despite submitting to extensive therapy sessions—or The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings, as she calls them—the prognosis for the relationship looks bleak. Can the couple possibly find their way back to how they once felt at the beginning?

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.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
“The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.”

"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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
This work is an experimental novel about a writer in Brooklyn, her marriage, and parenthood. It's written in a series of short chapters and vignettes. Sometimes it feels like the narrator is going on about little things, but then sometimes there is a sentence or two that pithly captures a truth about the human condition. No one in the story has a name - just the wife, the husband, and the daughter. The child grows and changes, the husband commits adultery, they move to the country. Everything is kept at a distance only to be periodically punctured by pain and regret. I appreciate what Offill is trying to do, but on the other hand this book didn't really resonate with me.… (more)
LibraryThing member mjlivi
A short, angry, hilarious portrait of a marriage, foundering on the rocks of parenthood, frustrated creativity and stagnation. There are wonderful moments on every page - witticisms, fascinating tangents and brutal descriptions of anxiety or fear.

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.

On inidelity:

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.
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LibraryThing member greeniezona
Lee recommended that I read this book ages ago. And dutifully I added it to my to-read list and moved on. An age later, I finally picked up a copy. And put it on my to-read shelf and moved on. Another age had to pass until I was staring at my shelves to make a TBR pile for the Libraries Matter Readathon, and I grabbed it.


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. A rage that was barely (not really) satisfied by the reconciliation at the end of the novel. But this is life, right? Messy, and fractured, and compromised.
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LibraryThing member booksgaloreca
This book is the story of a marriage as told through the eyes of the wife. It found it annoying and disjointed. I felt like I was seeing the world through the eyes of a mentally disturbed individual.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member nomadreader
The basics: "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." (via publisher)

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
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LibraryThing member Bodagirl
It's not so much a novel as a series of a character's thoughts, memories, and observations mixed with quotations that takes the shape of one side a a relationship and marriage. I think one of the more interesting parts of the book is the switch from first to third narration mirroring the deterioration and the restoration(?) of the relationship.

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.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Readers who might be put off initially (as I was) by the format and apparent serendipity of the opening pages, will have their patience quickly rewarded as the story soon unfolds. Offill's style reminded me of Einstein's Dreams, with the short paragraphs and chapters, and a plot line interspersed with aphorisms and various excerpts of scientific and philosophical writing. The account of the challenges and happinesses of a marriage and parenthood ring absolutely true, and once I became engaged in this book I simply couldn't stop.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eesil
Thanks to the publisher for giving me an opportunity to read and review this book through Netgalley. This is a very quick read (easily in one sitting), and well worth it. Offil's writing is very sparse but really conveys the emotions of parenthood and a struggling marriage. It's a bit like reading a long haiku (I know -- that sounds contradictory), but it's the sparseness and cleverness of the language that makes it haiku like.… (more)
LibraryThing member DougJ110
Avant garde writing; reads as much like poetry as it does prose.
LibraryThing member irishwasherwoman
I'm so torn about this book. It's a small book that provides a very large reading experience, a rather visceral love/hate relationship. I think the best way to describe it is an avant-garde stream of consciousness. It's the story of a marriage told my a nameless wife. Her random thoughts take you from courtship, to birth, to identity crisis, to bedbugs, to infidelity, to - I don't know what.… (more)
LibraryThing member shazjhb
Did not enjoy this book
LibraryThing member dougcornelius
This is a avant garde novel of a marriage that is short, but deep in love and despair. It's told in several dozen short chapters composed of short paragraphs. The narrator refers to herself simply as the Wife. She takes the reader through her life, starting as a young woman who wants to be an "Art Monster," to a wife, to a mother, through the troubles in her marriage.

It lacks a strong narrative and comes across as more experimental. You may even think of it as a book written as an assignment, trying to impress a writing teacher.

I found out that the author also writes children's books. It's more akin to those types of books with short, precise bursts of prose.
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LibraryThing member pgchuis
It is very difficult to describe this book. It tells the story of the protagonist's marriage, the birth of her daughter and a crisis in the marriage, but is written in very short paragraphs, some so elliptical, that I didn't really follow what she meant. The sections relating to her daughter as a baby (cried all the time) brought back memories and the paragraph describing her daughter's doctor's kit made me laugh. After that it got very sad indeed and I am not convinced things will end happily.… (more)
LibraryThing member porch_reader
The story of a relationship told in the most spare prose possible. This is less a narrative, and more a series of observations, as the author attempts to make sense of a relationship that has gradually and then suddenly lost its luster. Given the format, I did not come to identify with these characters as strongly as I might have in a more traditionally told story. I missed the flow of a good narrative. But I was constantly pulled up short by the clarity of the observations, by how much can be conveyed in only a few words. At times, it was the juxtaposition of the insights that made me think. Like these, the first two paragraphs of the book:

"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.
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LibraryThing member KimHooperWrites
This is a lovely, lovely little book. I was a little caught off guard by the format. The margins are huge. Paragraph breaks are many. It almost reads (and looks) like a really long poem. I devoured it in a couple sittings because I found it hard to put down. Her writing is just gorgeous. In these eloquent bits and pieces, you get the story of a marriage and a period of turmoil it endures. This book is surprisingly powerful with its small stature. I can't wait to read more by this author.… (more)
LibraryThing member bas615
Fantastic. Shattering. The complexities of a marriage have seldom been explored in such depth and with such perceptiveness. While the topic was quite depressing. The writing was compulsively readable. Even though it does not have a traditional narrative structure, I found the story pulling me along. I wanted to know what was going to happen.

The inventiveness of the structure is quite compelling. I am not usually a fan of creative structuring. However, it was quite well utilized here. Our mind does not work linearly and this echoed that. It felt like how I recall past events. Some parts stand out well. Others are hazy and there are external ideas connected to many of these memories.

I find I tend to wind up unintentionally reading several books with similar themes close together. This and Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante cover similar terrain. They are both exceptional works. This was perhaps less angry, but it no less disturbing. They are both well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
The writing and style painted a picture but the process is nonlinear. Marriage, identity, growing up are the themes.
LibraryThing member franoscar
Could be spoilers. I don't know. It was cute, I guess, and some of the quotes were good. But I was skeptical of the science. It was too flip, it fit into the story too easily. I didn't find myself profoundly affected.
LibraryThing member melissarochelle
Read from January 11 to 12, 2015

I wanted to highlight nearly every sentence in this short novella about a woman who's marriage is disintegrating. This isn't a straightforward story, it's told through glimpses into the wife's life -- how she met her husband, the early days of motherhood, random thoughts from philosophers and poets, conversations with friends. It can easily be read in one sitting and maybe even read a second time.

I was reminded of The Lover's Dictionary -- a favorite of mine from a few years ago. Both tell stories of love and loss in nontraditional ways.
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