Lately I’ve been going through the first posts on this blog, fixing the formatting and style (not the content, though, as much as I’d sometimes like to), and I often see posts that begin by thanking John Self at The Aslyum for the book recommendation. I must start this one that way as well. Were it not for his enthusiasm, I probably wouldn’t have picked up Jenny Offill’s short, bitter, funny, sad novel Dept. of Speculation (2014). And that would have been a shame, as it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
This is a book I truly dug into with no knowledge of its contents. I just knew John Self loved it. I didn’t read the blurb, I didn’t read his review (here) or his interview with Offill (here). I just started. That’s a good way to start this book, methinks, so perhaps just set this post down and read the book. Meanwhile, I’ll continue: here are the first lines I encountered:
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?
Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space.
The first time I traveled alone, I went to a restaurant and ordered a steak.
Sometimes we may feel unmoored with such a fragmentary opening (and the book continues this throughout), and yet . . . and yet here Jenny Offill creates a coherent, emotional narrative out of the unbidden “tiny particles that swarm together and apart.” “It was the beginning,” this unnamed narrator says. Somehow we know very soon that this was the beginning of a relationship, and now things are not so good — the narrator is “so weary of it all.”
Dept. of Speculation, we come to learn almost through emotion rather than straight narrative, is a novel told by an unnamed woman, sometimes called “the wife.” She never planned to marry, to have a child — she hoped to dedicate her life to art — and yet here she is: weary.
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.
I love the inclusion of “for you” in that last line. I think a lot of writers would have left it out, insensitive to its tone and defaulting to “craft an anecdote out of nothing.” But what we get here is a sense of obligation born of desperation which is born of love, at least initially. There’s a tenderness to the poverty, a wish to give where one feels empty.
It’s not the topic that’s so fresh and new here, obviously, it’s the telling, it’s the wealth of sensitive, finely crafted sentences like the one I just wrote about above, it’s the way Offill taps into the fragmented day-to-day life and extracts the strangeness (and wonder) of it all. Here are two moments when she tells about her daughter, and the wife is shocked to find herself in this situation (projecting, wonderfully, some of this shock onto the child):
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.
[. . .]
I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger. “It’s for my daughter,” I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.
The book is also fresh and unique because of its genuine, intimate darkness. We get a sense we are coming to know this woman in ways even her husband could never comprehend. She doesn’t want him to (mimicking her desire to give him something from what she considers nothing):
He is famously kind, my husband. Always sending money to those afflicted with obscure diseases or shoveling the walk of the crazy neighbor or helloing the fat girl at Rite Aid. He’s from Ohio. This means he never forgets to thank the bus driver or pushes in front at the baggage claim. Nor does he keep a list of those who infuriate him on a given day. People mean well. That is what he believes. How then is he married to me? I hate often and easily. I hate, for example, people who sit with their legs splayed. People who claim to give 110 percent. People who call themselves “comfortable” when what they mean is decadently rich. You’re so judgmental, my shrink tells me, and I cry all the way home, thinking of it.
She didn’t necessarily want the wonderful things that she now finds in her life, and now she doesn’t feel worthy of them. She is distracted (reflected in the novel’s structure); she doesn’t know what to do.
Sometimes at night I conduct interviews with myself.
What do you want?
I don’t know.
What do you want?
I don’t know.
What seems to be the problem?
Just leave me alone.
One last thing I want to touch on is the range of emotion. I’ve already brought up some of the darkness, and I have alluded to the wonder and happiness (“Amazing. Out of dark waters, this.”), but I haven’t mentioned the humor, which comes with some bite — “The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)” — and with, again, love . . . kind of — “Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say.”
And one more element to throw into the mix: the narrators continued effort to understand human experience. We get this in the first lines of then novel, when she talks about memories and, in a nice contrast to the intimacy we often feel in the novel, tells us that Edison thought they came from outer space, that emptiness. Edison comes up throughout the book, as does Carl Sagan, and Voyager I and Voyager II, always bringing this tiny story out to the cosmos and then back in again. There’s an interest in Wittgenstein and language and what words signify:
General notes: If the wife becomes unwived, what should she be called? Will the story have to be rewritten? There is a time between being a wife and being a divorcée, but no good word for it. Maybe say what a politician might say. Stateless person. Yes, stateless.
This is such a wonderful book, so I’d like to end on a sense of wonder, just after we’ve thought about the right word for a “stateless person”:
Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business. Once when he was still young, I saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid. But it was just a cowlick. Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness.