When I read a book, I have gotten into the habit of folding down the bottom corners of pages that have things I might want to remember. Folding the top corner is for when I don’t have a bookmark, which is often. The bottom corner is a compromise with myself: I want to cultivate the skating speed of reading without a pen without giving up the ability to keep track of the important bits for later. There was no real good reason to take notes on Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, except that the praise has been so extravagant and I’m ambivalent about it. Is it good? I’m not sure: I think it’s gimmicky.
I bought it in Seattle at Elliott Bay on the strength of a shelf tag.
It certainly did amuse me, and, in moments move me. I was disappointed, though, that that title notion—of the loss of a sense of wonder and speculation that comes when a couple marries and has children—is so underdeveloped. The poetry of a Dept. of Speculation is beautiful, and the idea that that was the return address for early letters between husband and wife is really lovely. Like Woolf’s devastating story about the death of a marriage, “Lappin and Lapinova,” Offill approaches the idea of how fantasy, joy, and play can leach out of a marriage over time. But then, maddenly, she retreats from it.
The plot is thin: a woman who never imagined marrying marries a nice man. They have a child. Both creative types, they live in Brooklyn (snore) and watch as their careers fail to take off. The birth of their only child further derails the mother, who is frustrated by and enamored of the way the baby consumes her. (Snore!) She gets depressed. He cheats on her. They fight their way back to each other.
The structure is either mildly experimental or a gimmick, depending on your attitude: the story develops by paragraphs, each separated by a blank line, some more related to the story than others. Some are jokes. Some are about work. In others, developments in the unnamed husband and wife’s life (the baby’s colic, the husband’s affair), emerge as if they’ve happened in the blank spaces. Not a new technique but one that does make the reading go fast.
Occasionally, the interruption of meta-commentary about how this story would or would not pass muster in the fiction workshops the mother herself teaches are funny, as “WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE? / WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?” as a comment that could go on almost any early draft of a student story. Occasionally they just reminded me that I might rather read a more patiently developed tale.
But a few things struck me as interesting, worth saving. For example, the moment when a very young man attends a dinner party of thirty-somethings and seems to judge them: “’You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,’ someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.” Or the description of going to the grocery store, as a sleep-deprived new mother: “Later my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix.”
But when I told the second to my mother, trying to explain why this novel might have some value, she just said, “That’s why I always make a list.”
Indeed. (You should hear her on Ferrante.)
I like the edge of disturbance in this one: “Here is what happens in middle age: Some friends and acquaintances who were merely eccentric for years become unmistakably mad.”
And I liked this “’You look great,’ her ex says. ‘Amazing actually.’ Everyone has been saying that to her lately. That she looks radiant, glowing. She refuses to mention the yoga. It isn’t that. It’s that the scrim has fallen away. All right, all right, maybe it’s the yoga. It’s true that it’s hard to work the scrim thing in conversationally.”
As a whole, the piece had the feel of autobiography. I got a strong sense of Offill’s intelligence and of the main character’s depression, but I don’t think this his much more than an amuse-bouche of a book.