Dept of Speculation

Dept of SpeculationIt’s an ordinary story. A woman meets a man. They fall in love. They get married. They have a baby. And then…

Colic, bedbugs, head lice … and all the other ordinary annoyances of life. The unnamed narrator of this novel by Jenny Offill tries to make sense of her life and make a plan by watching others, by remembering stories she’s heard, by doing yoga. She recounts her efforts, often in short bursts of text:

There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.

What the Yoga People say: None of this is banal, if only you would attend to it.

All right then, this thing clogging the sink. I reach my hand into the murky water, fiddle with the drain. When I pull it back out, my hand is scummed with grease.

The novel has a plot, but there’s nothing there most readers haven’t encountered before. The telling is what makes this novel particularly effective. Offill offers an impression of a story, rather than an actual plot. We get enough standard narration to know the gist of what’s happening, but the book is focused on the narrator’s inner landscape. She knows what’s going on, so there’s no need to narrate the action in detail unless some detail particularly resonates with the narrator.

One thing the book does really well is to get at the relentlessness of both the routine of daily life and the thoughts we often have about it. There’s a tension in the work of getting through each day and the desire to plan and even dream about the future. It’s something I think a lot of people must experience as they settle into adulthood and move toward middle age. How do we accept what won’t happen and focus on what is without giving up on happiness? The narrator’s daughter is still able to focus on her dreams and make the dreams sufficient. She has a doctor’s kit, and so she is a doctor. But the narrator is just a ghost writer whose job it is to make a man’s dreams of outer space look like they’re real. She can no longer write her own dreams for herself.

Rohan wrote today about stories that take the best advantage of their particular medium, and I think this is a great example of what that can look like. Much of what makes this book special couldn’t be translated to film or a stage. For example, Offill plays around with point of view, always writing from the perspective of the wife, but switching between first and third person, sometimes addressing her husband as “you,” and sometimes referring to him as “my husband.” These shifts offer clues to the narrator’s state. The shifts are noticeable, and what Offill is doing with them subtle enough that I didn’t really take it in until the last chapter.

The swiftness of the storytelling—I read it in one sitting—also contributes to its impact. The narrator doesn’t spend heaps of time on any one feeling or dilemma. Even as she struggles with one crisis or another, her way of thinking about the crisis drifts. The narration felt like being inside a mind–and particularly inside a modern mind, easily distracted, always juggling multiple challenges big and small, rarely settling down on any one thing. This approach made the narrator’s feelings more immediate than a novel written in a straightforward style would have. Because the narrator doesn’t stop to analyze her thoughts, I don’t either. I just feel along with her.

This is the fourth book that I’ve read that’s going to be in this year’s Tournament of Books, and it’s my favorite so far. As much as I liked The Paying Guests and Station Eleven, neither book really seemed to stretch the boundaries of storytelling. They’re both fine books, entertaining and accomplished, the kinds of books I love to read and want more of. (The Untamed State is more overtly flawed.) But this was on a different level. Offill manages to be innovative in the way she tells her story while also capturing aspects of modern life that sound banal when written about in a straightforward way. Somehow, this style of storytelling makes those ordinary emotions seem as raw and painful and terrifying as they can be in real life.

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11 Responses to Dept of Speculation

  1. Stefanie says:

    Isn’t this a good one? I very much enjoyed it too. That to pursue her dreams she had to consider whether she wanted to be an “art monster” made me sad. I like how it ends too, there is hope there but you so fragile that it feels like it could tip in any direction.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I read this in a completely opposite way–a few pages a night over a week. I liked taking it slowly, getting one little slice of their life each night. But yes, like Stefanie, I really enjoyed it too.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m hanging on to my copy because I want to revisit it. Maybe I’ll try it your way next time. (I’m rarely good at reading that way–I always want to know what’s next.)

  3. Pingback: Reading Break: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill | Something More

  4. Christy says:

    I had only heard a general but very enthusiastic recommendation of this book, so your review has filled in for me why people are seeing something special in it. It sounds really good.

    • Teresa says:

      I’d seen lots of praise for it, too, but I didn’t have any idea of what it was about. (I thought it was something to do with academia. I have no idea why.)

  5. Rebecca H. says:

    I’m so glad you liked this one! I’m rooting for it to win the tournament, for sure. I read it twice last year, with several months at least between the two readings, and I think I might read it again some day. I love how interesting the writing is, the way she uses juxtapositions effectively and how she builds her story through a lot of small pieces that fit together loosely. Plus, I just like the way the narrator’s mind works.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to hear that it stood up to two readings. It seemed so well put together on this first reading that I’d like to go through it again more slowly to pick up some of the nuance that I missed.

  6. Oh, I have a hard time resisting the allure of a book anyone describes as well put together. Did this only come out last year? It feels like it’s been out forever, so many bloggers have loved it.

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