Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
2nd May 2014
Jenny Offill’s second novel arrives fifteen years after Last Things, with several children’s books in between.
Dept. of Speculation opens with a clipped vignette marking the beginning of a romance. Through fragments of memories we get to know the narrator in her youth; her first experiences of travelling alone, her Brooklyn apartment and her job checking ‘fun facts’ at a science magazine.
The process of falling in love is described with all its excitement and urgency, while the pair explore New York and travel to Capri on holiday. Details appear as recalled years later, snippets which stand out in the woman’s mind.
The title refers to a period when they send each other letters with the return address: Dept. of Speculation. There are moments of tenderness, believable glimpses into the intimacy of their changing relationship as they get married and have a child.
The novel begins in first person, while addressing the future husband as “you.” Later there is a switch to the third person, when things start to go awry. The characters never acquire names and the family members are simply referred to as “the wife,” “the husband” and “the daughter.”
The daughter’s developing personality is shown through her sweet, bizarre questions and little nuances in her behaviour. The mother’s character is further developed by her responses.
The woman thinks deeply about many aspects of life, sometimes using quotes to illustrate her feelings – words by Rilke, Kant, Edison and ideas from Buddhism. This could be clumsy or pretentious in the wrong hands, but Offill pulls it off with style.
The writing is at once poetic, sparse, witty and honest, drawing empathy for the pessimistic heroine as she deals with life breaking apartWe discover that the protagonist never intended to become a wife or mother, but rather an “art monster,” unconcerned with mundane realities. Instead she teaches writing and ghostwrites a book by a Russian businessman who didn’t quite make it as a cosmonaut.
At one point the family fights a war against bed bugs, a situation which does not help the wife’s insomnia. She imagines the worst, her anxiety making her overprotective of her daughter.
But it turns out she has bigger, unanticipated problems in her marriage. The storyline is moving and wholly realistic, a depressingly common tale told in a new way with the help of philosophy, history and Offill’s expert use of language.
The writing is at once poetic, sparse, witty and honest, drawing empathy for the pessimistic heroine as she deals with life breaking apart. Paragraphs stand alone, separated by spaces.
Unusually for such a poetic book, the pace does not suffer. Satisfyingly compact, it tells a story which expands over many years while managing to retain momentum. It can be read in one sitting but merits multiple re-reads in order to take in the beauty of the language.
Challenging preconceptions of domestic fiction, there is never a dull moment in Dept. of Speculation. It might be a tale of sadness and everyday problems but it’s immensely enjoyable to read, and feels fully realised despite its fragmented nature.