Dept. of Speculation
Sasha Weiss in the New Yorker Blog, Page-turner, recently wrote this:
When I wasn’t spying [on what other flight passengers were reading], I was devouring Jenny Offill’s exquisite, slim novel in aphoristic phrases, “Dept. of Speculation,” comforted by the idea that if the plane went down, my last glimpse of this world would be of a pleasing sentence.
She was right. Jenny Offill is concerned with writing at the atomic level. This thin book is a gathering together of vignettes, memories and thoughts, separated by white space on the page, clean, stand-alone paragraphs, all charging together to form a life. And a life is just what the book is about; a woman, very much like the author, in that she has written a first novel to great acclaim and all anyone expects from her is the follow up. It has been years since the publication of her debut (15 in real life) but the everyday (work, marriage, children) has got in the way of producing that allusive second book.
The subject matter makes the book sound not particularly novel or even interesting – but that depends on which side of the tired argument about women writers and the domestic that you sit on and which I don’t want to get into here – but it is the format, style, wit and language used that brings this book close to perfect. Take this for instance:
I had this idea in the middle of the night that maybe I could stop working for the almost astronaut and get a job writing fortune cookies instead. I could try to write really American ones. Already I jotted down a few of them.
Objects create happiness.
The animals are pleased to be of use.
Your cities will shine forever.
Death will not touch you.
Or this paragraph:
The weather is theater here. They watch it through the window from their bed.
Dept. of Speculation is simple but it is also packed full. It reads like someone stumbling, dazed, through her life. Not knowing how to feel or the right way to experience life or even why these experiences are happening to her. She tries to find answers through friends and family, from philosophy, in books, and yoga. Quotes and trivia are dropped in between her life. My favourite nugget of information comes when she is observing a neighbour whose husband has left her.
The wife watched her neighbor get fat over the next year. The Germans have a word for that. Kummerspeck. Literally, grief bacon.
Just past the halfway point a secret is uncovered that shocks her into change and suddenly the narration is foisted out of first person and thrown into third, as if the narrator can’t deal with the trauma and has stepped outside of herself. We still know that it is the same character telling us the story but not only does she drop the ‘I’, she becomes ‘the wife’, in the same way that she has been labelling everyone else: the philosopher, the sister, K. And then you start to see that it has not so much been snapshots coming together to form a life, it is a life broken apart into manageable bits, a life fragmenting because she doesn’t know how to cope with it all together.