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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review: 'Dept. of Speculation'

Dept. of Speculation
By Jenny Offill
Literary fiction
October 2014
Vintage Contemporaries
ISBN: 9978-0345806871
                                                                                                                                                  
Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation would probably be considered too twee or the stuff of fiction from The New Yorker for some readers. It's the story of a New York City marriage, of a wife, of her husband, of their child (none of them are ever named), and how they started out and how they carried on and what happpened when the husband was unfaithful. But it didn't read like the oft-told tale it appears to be from that description.

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.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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