Title: Dept. of Speculation
Author: Jenny Offill
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin)
Time taken to read: 3 days
Goodreads synopsis: Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all. Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes—a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.
I borrowed this book from my office–yes, I have an office now! Well, I am rather sort of a guest in an office. I have been an intern at Union Literary in Soho for two weeks now, and it is amazing (despite the fact that it pays $0.00 an hour). I love 1. not having to talk to anyone pretty much all day (customer service is exhausting) and 2. when I do talk to someone, we’re hashing out ideas about a manuscript and trying to figure out what to do with it, so it’s like my reviews here, except it actually matters. And even though I’ve only been there two weeks, my opinion is valued, and that feels indescribable. And it’s really cool that this book, which is such a big hit, came from my office.
When I read the back cover, I honestly thought it wasn’t going to be that interesting. It’s a husband and wife and their baby and their marriage is falling apart, blah blah. Why should I care? What about this story is different? Truthfully, nothing. It’s the words. This is no typical narrative. One Goodreads reviewer described it as a “mosaic,” which I think is the perfect word for it. The poetic style is really cool to me because while I like the concept of poetry, I just don’t really get it most of the time, and I like the rules of the English language, which poetry often discards. So this was like poetry with proper grammar and syntax, which I love. The hard part was that there were parts of the story that I didn’t understand because it was so poetic. (That’s also what I don’t like about most poetry: just say the thing you mean! It doesn’t have to be so cryptic!) Especially with the ending, I just didn’t understand what was happening and why, what the conclusion was supposed to be, and what was supposed to be implied for their future.
But overall, I enjoyed reading it, and there were so many great lines that I wanted to write down. I only ended up writing down one: “But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be” (114). Isn’t that just so real? I also loved when she talked about the “Little Theater of Hurt Feelings,” and I thought that might have even been a better title for the book. My favorite part, though, was when she started describing a scene of her life as though one of her students had written it as fiction and she was critiquing it. That was really something special. I suggest you give this one a go!