Reading Break: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill’s slim novel, Dept. of Speculation, is composed of short fragments, sort of like a collage. I’m going to do my review the same way. Because I’m lazy, not because I’m literary.

Offill’s fragmentary paragraphs create a kind of elliptical portrait of the unraveling (and maybe repairing) of a marriage–representing how the narrator, identified only as The Wife, might think about it rather than providing a straightforward narrative. This isn’t as difficult to read as it sounds; I got the hang of it a couple of short chapters in and didn’t find the plot hard to figure out. I’m sure some readers would find the narrative style annoying, though.

Every year I try to read a few things from Best Books lists that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about or picked up. Dept. of Speculation caught my eye because the subject matter is the stuff of women’s fiction, and I’m always interested in more “literary” takes on commercial women’s genres. What difference does the way it’s told make?

Like Teresa of Shelf Love, who also just read this book, as I was reading I thought about Rohan’s recent post on Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes, and what kinds of books do and do not translate easily to film. Offill’s book would make a very dull film, and everything that made the book engrossing would be lost. Here’s the plot: a couple meet, get married, and deal with the numbing routines (and deep joys) of parenthood and work, try to come to terms with the fact that they’re turning into ordinary middle-aged people rather than the “art monsters” they once dreamed of being, drift apart, struggle to stay together. I wouldn’t want to read a straightforward telling of that. I found that Offill’s kaleidoscopic narrative meant I got the feeling of that daily grind without having to read long dull stretches of it.

I read this book in an afternoon through the fog of a cold. I don’t feel I can do it justice without reading it again, more carefully. What was all the stuff about astronauts doing in it, for instance? The narrator, a novelist and creative writing teacher, is ghost-writing a book on space. I think it’s something to do with this, an early passage that tips us off to how the book works:

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.

It may also have to do with the narrator’s feeling of being sealed off from the life around her a lot of the time, living in her own head. But there’s so much here that I haven’t really worked out.

The thing is, I don’t think I can bring myself to read Dept. of Speculation again. Not because it was so depressing; the ending is hopeful and there are lots of funny passages. But because here is the big difference I see between Offill’s “literary” novel and a commercial version of the same story: commercial fiction offers a smooth narrative ride and an emotional catharsis; even if it’s painful and angsty, that pain is a kind of pleasure for us as readers. I’m not criticizing that. It takes skill to write like that. I don’t think the pleasures of commercial fiction are necessarily mindless, or that what they make us feel and think is valueless.

I found this reading experience very different. Some of Offill’s fragments are jagged. They lodged in my heart. I’m going to feel them there for a long time. I couldn’t cry them out and move on because I thought, as I read, “This is how my marriage would unravel, if it ever did. Because I’m like The Wife. I live too much in my own head. I don’t pay attention. Because my husband would need not someone younger or sexier, but someone easier.” (That was the most devastating exchange in the book for me). Maybe this has nothing to do with Offill’s style at all, but with the fact that I identified with the character. But I think having to work at piecing together her meaning was part of it, somehow.

I’m glad I read this. But ouch.


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7 Responses to Reading Break: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

  1. “This is how my marriage would unravel, if it ever did. Because I’m like The Wife. I live too much in my own head. I don’t pay attention. Because my husband would need not someone younger or sexier, but someone easier.”

    Darn. I find that to be an accurate assessment of my marriage too. I’ve been trying to decide whether I should give this book a try and your review’s just made it murkier!! 😀 😛

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You could think of it as a vicarious visit to “the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings” (which I eventually figured out was the narrator’s term for therapy–I’m a bit slow!)! I did like the book a lot.

      I thought a downside of *us* being so much in the narrator’s head was that her husband never really emerged clearly as a person and the resolution wasn’t really clear/believable. I didn’t understand *why* their relationship worked out as it did. But maybe that was partly the point. These things aren’t always clear/neat/understandable, even to the participants.

  2. lawless says:

    I identify with the narrator’s assessment of herself and her husband as well. Sounds like a fascinating book, though!

    I thought about responding to Rohan’s blog by saying that when I write fiction (just about all fanfiction, much of it slash), I write down the events as I see them in my mind, like a movie, which probably puts my writing firmly in the genre camp (not surprisingly, because at base most of my writing is romance). But I do include inner thoughts, rely on POV, and sometimes play with form, so I may not be as firmly in the genre/storytelling camp as that makes it sound. Besides, a book like Gone Girl, which is pretty clearly genre and not literary, plays heavily with form and narrative.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I don’t know if it’s genre vs. literary at all, or whether it’s about a style/form that calls attention to itself vs. one that strives to be transparent (which itself is an illusion–we can’t see “through” the language to something real beyond it–and an art form). For instance, most adaptations of Austen really can’t get her irony.

      I think for me a good adaptation is one that doesn’t try to be faithful to the source but uses a new medium to do something similarly powerful with it (a voice might be rendered in some visual way) or reinterprets it to make its own strong work of art. (Did you see that film, Adaptation, about failing to adapt The Orchid Thief? I liked that a lot). In short–it makes you feel that you’ve gained as much as you lost. That’s a whole different ballgame from adapting a “filmic” novel that seems to translate smoothly to the screen.

      (I was going to comment on Rohan’s post but got distracted).

      • lawless says:

        Yeah, when I thought about it more, she wasn’t actually making (or saying) genre vs. literary, but that’s the shorthand my brain gave it. I decided to comment at her blog, but I think my comment here (other than the genre/literary snafu) is clearer.

  3. KeiraSoleore says:

    I found this very interesting: “I found that Offill’s kaleidoscopic narrative meant I got the feeling of that daily grind without having to read long dull stretches of it.”

    So this disjointed off-handed vignette style in fact works precisely to convey the emotional nuances of the story without extraneous words. That’s a remarkably successful book stylistically speaking.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a good way of putting it! Yes, I thought the style was both engaging and effective. Not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but like that, I think the effect was to represent a state of mind.

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