Also Read: Dept. of Speculation

OffillJenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:

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.

And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis

There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?

The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.

And yet… and yet…

Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.

Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?



36 thoughts on “Also Read: Dept. of Speculation”

  1. Marina Sofia – I’ll admit I’ve not read this one. But it certainly deals with things we can all understand, especially the ‘how did I get here?’ sort of syndrome. The difference between what we think we will be when we’re young, and what we actually end up being, is fascinating.

    1. The subject matter was one that is of constant interest (or should I say obsession) to me, but it’s interesting to compare this with the much more visceral and passionate ‘Days of Abandonment’, which is very similar in subject matter.

  2. I have read it, Marina, and I loved it. It was the writing I fell for and looking back at my own review I see I’ve stuffed it full of quotes which I don’t usually do.

  3. It’s very interesting to read your thoughts on this book, Marina. I’ve had a copy for months, but something keeps stopping me from picking it up. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve seen so much praise for it, and I wonder whether it will live up to expectations. I’m a fan of early Woody Allen, so all that introspection should appeal to me…and yet I fear I might read it and think ‘so what?’

    1. Mmm, yes, I suppose that was my reaction. ‘So what’. Interesting the contrast to the emotional turmoil that Days of Abandonment provoked in me – both handle similar themes, but perhaps I just prefer the drama rather than the philosophical speculation? No, I don’t think that’s the reason. It is the ‘bittiness’ of it that somehow stopped me from loving it.

  4. Such a great review. I’m in the library queue, waiting for my turn to read Department of Speculation. I’ve reading both glowing and cautious reviews, so my curiosity is piqued!

    1. Look forward to seeing what you think! I don’t think anyone disagrees about the quality of the writing, though: it is quite poetic and always challenging (in a good way).

  5. I think I’ve got this on kindle… It was recommended after I read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn & loved her frank but witty style. Interested in the experimental narrative too – and how telling to go from first person to third once she is the wife! Be good to compare to Ferrante’s TDOA too…

    1. Very different from Heartburn though. Equally frank but not quite as funny. There is some wry, embarrassing sort of humour (and Frizbot, for one, is laughing out loud).

      1. Got to be worth a read if its got Naomi laughing… Yay! Looked & yes got it on kindle – Can read it soon without breaching #tbr20

    1. It’s very much a novel written by a poet, with great moments of insight, Polly, so I think you might like it. It just didn’t work for me fully as a novel.

  6. I read this yesterday (well, most of it, haven’t quite finished it yet) after our conversation on Twitter. I loved the comments about marriage and motherhood and being a woman and trying to create art; so much of it rang true. I also liked the style; I don’t have an issue with fragmented narratives, personally, I think they’re harder to put together than a linear novel. It reminded me very much of Valeria Luiselli’s first novel Faces in the Crowd (also published by Granta) which is one of my favourite ever novels. That concerns motherhood, isolation, art and also the ghost of a poet.

    1. So impressed we pushed you to reading it – I apologise in advance to your Ph.D. supervisor! I’ve had the Luiselli one on my wishlist for a while now.

      These are very much themes that resonate with me as well, Naomi, which is why I expected to really enjoy this. I’d love to hear your thoughts as to why you think fragmented narratives are harder to write than linear (and I don’t think I mean linear, but rather a strong narrative backbone). It feels much more ‘natural’ to me – like keeping a diary.

      1. Haha! Well, if you don’t tell her…

        I think for a published piece of work there still has to be something that sustains some sort of narrative and keeps the reader engaged. Choosing those sections and their positioning must be like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together properly. I find plotting hell – those pieces have to fit and be plausible – but to actively remove linking sections and still make the narrative work for a reader is more challenging, I think. A diary isn’t written for an external audience so doesn’t need to make sense although I think many diarists try to create a sense of narrative regardless.

  7. I seem to be the only one who’ve never heard of this.
    I tend to be reluctant to read experimental stuff but the Woody Allen reference is like a magnet.
    Does she bring something new to this well known path and topic?

    1. It’s not wildly experimental, it’s more a collection of thoughts, life experiences, anecdotes, philosophical wonderings in a roughly chronological fashion. Reminded me a little of Amelie Nothomb (although probably not so autobiographical).

  8. A bit late to the discussion but I tend to agree with you, Marina. I found the book very quotable and full of truths I found myself nodding at and the writing was beautiful but days and weeks later it’s leaving less and less of an impression. Perhaps because it was so fragmented? Too nebulous?

  9. Hmmm. I just read a wonderful interview with jenny Offil and this book sounds like everything I would love. But I do like a narrative arc. I’ll definitely be reading this so maybe I’ll report back then!

  10. Interesting, I see why you commented on mine that we’d had a similar reaction, we really did.

    Not much to add, I used the phrase “islands of prose” and I think we’re on the same page here. I do think it’s worth reading and I may reread it at some stage, but it’s not quite the sum of its parts.

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