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Apr 09

Book Review: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

What’s It About

The unnamed narrator – a woman, a wife, a mother – ruminates in fragments and vignettes about the breaking down of her marriage, the rearing of her child and ghost writing a novel.

Should I Read It?

Yes.

At 25,000 words, this book would barely scrape in as a novella if it were ever submitted for a Science Fiction Award.  But in actuality, while it might be short in length, the Dept. of Speculation has a depth that puts lie to the fact that a book needs to be of a certain size to be considered a novel.

Through observation, recollection and some very funny anecdotes, Offill’s unnamed character explores the challenges of marriage and of bringing up a child, while also trying to find space to be creative.  Although that might sound all first world problems and middle class anxieties, the frank, almost matter of fact prose is devoid of melodrama and angst.  And yet it’s a novel that resonated with me – especially the early sections where the unnamed narrator is caring for her infant daughter.

The Dept. of Speculation is a restrained, tightly written and superb novel.  It might only be 25,000 words but those are some well-chosen words.

Representative Paragraph

So there’s this neat little reminiscence…

The first time I traveled alone, I went to a restaurant and ordered a steak. But when it came I saw it was just a piece of raw meat cut into pieces. I tried to eat it, but it was too bloody. My throat refused to swallow. Finally, I spit it out into a napkin. There was still a great deal of meat on my plate. I was afraid the waiter would notice I wasn’t eating and laugh or yell at me. For a long time, I sat there, looking at it. Then I took a roll, hollowed it out, and secreted the meat inside it. I had a very small purse but I thought I could fit the roll in without being seen. I paid the bill, and walked out, expecting to be stopped, but no one stopped me.

… which reminded me of this episode of Mr Bean:

You know, the one where he goes to the expensive restaurant to celebrate his birthday and gets served steak tartare…  Am I the only one who see’s this connection!?

Commentary

There’s a moment, early in the novel, when looking into the eyes of her infant daughter, the unnamed narrator observes that “she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”  And immediately I was taken back to a time when I was comforting my newborn son and he would look at me with exactly the expression Offill was so perfectly describing.  It’s rare for a novel to have that effect on me, to trigger such a clear and intimate memory.   But for the first half of Dept. of Speculation, I found this happening again and again.

Nuggets, such as this one —

I have a chunk of vomit in my hair, I realize right before class. Chunk is maybe overstating it, but yes, something. I wash my hair in the sink.

— which reminded me of that time when Sophie puked into my open mouth and hair while I was holding her in the air.  And even if the event described by Offill wasn’t something I’d experienced —

Then one day I discovered something that surprised me. The baby was calm at Rite Aid. She seemed to like the harsh light of it, the shelves of plenty. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, she’d suspend her fierce judgment of the world and fall silent there. And when she did, a tiny space would clear in my head and I could think again.

— the moment still resonated.

However, this isn’t a novel solely about the challenges and difficulties of raising a child.  Rather it’s about a woman who had other dreams —

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.

— but instead gets “trapped” in the cycle of marriage and child rearing that many of us gravitate too.  And while she spends a portion of the novel trying to find a creative space for herself, even if that means ghost writing a novel of science-y facts for an “almost astronaut” and writing fortune cookies that would really relate to Americans (though she’s a little less serious by that endeavor) the future her younger self envisaged never eventuates.   There’s this telling moment when she meets an old friend who used to edit a literary magazine.  Both are married.  Both have children.

“I think I must have missed your second book,” he says.

“No,” I say.  “There isn’t one”

He looks uncomfortable; both of us are calculating the years or maybe only I am.

“Did something happen?” he says kindly after a moment.

“Yes,” I explain.

Her husband caps this anecdote off by noting that her life as the art monster was the “road not taken”.

While I don’t want to reduce this beautiful novel down to a single theme or message, Offill is able to capture the paradoxical complexity of mundane life.  The overwhelming sense of love, the sadness and anger when things fall apart.  The sheer joy of raising a child, the anxiety and sadness when that child no longer wants her mummy to put an “I Love You” note in her lunch box.  And the slow but inevitable break-up of a relationship.  All of it summed up in the following way:

My love for [my daughter] seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited.  There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t known them.

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