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Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offill, Granta, RRP£12.99/Knopf, $22.95, 192 pages
Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept of Speculation, arrives 15 years after her debut, Last Things (1999). Why such a long gap? There are some clues in this book. Motherhood, for one thing, has a habit of getting in the way of working lives.
Early in the story, our narrator (a writer and teacher) is at home with her colicky baby daughter. It’s not a happy situation: “After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again.”
The novel is framed around the elements that define one marriage: a couple, a child, adultery, betrayal, hurt and the beginning of forgiveness. That is, however, only the backdrop. We see everything from the point of view of our narrator – a woman who makes notes about “POV” in the margins of her students’ essays (“Think about authorial distance! Who is speaking here?”). As the story moves on, and as events shape her outlook, the authorial distance changes – moving from “I” to “the wife” (during the difficult years) to “we” – a hopeful touch at the end.
In this slim, beautiful work, the short paragraphs read as a series of carefully crafted vignettes, linked yet strong enough to stand alone. As Offill explained in a recent interview: “The white spaces in the novel are meant to be resting places for the reader, stop-offs before the wife wheels off in another direction. I thought it would be overwhelming to be in her head in a linear, uninterrupted way.”
Every one of these short paragraphs carries weight: each is a thought, an observation, snatches of banal conversation, a weird fact. Everything matters here, from the lofty (“Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities.”) to the banal: there are, for example, many passages devoted to the shame and misery of having bedbugs in the family apartment (“An Arabic proverb: One insect is enough to fell a country”).
Offill has rummaged in her narrator’s head and put on to the page not stream of consciousness but short fragments of being. The effect is poetic in its beauty and intensity. Some of the fragments are, indeed, about poetry: “These bits of poetry that stick to her like burrs.” It is also, though, very funny: “Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say.”
This is not a book for the overly hopeful. It is about life, unvarnished, yet every bit of it made profound by Offill’s glorious prose.