Book Review – Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
This is a startling book. It is startling in almost every interpretation of the word. It is startling because it is like nothing I have ever read before – it is like a new species of narrative and a re-invention of the novel form. It startling because it really, really short (perhaps shorter than any novel I have ever read), so short that I felt cheated on the price (this churlishness was quickly banished as the story took hold, softly and without fanfair). This book is startling because there was something on every page which startled me – a sentence, a tangential observation, a clamourous truth, a quote from Rilke, an unruly description.
Jenny Offill wrote her first book in 1999, where it passed largely unnoticed. This one, 15 years later, was noticed by everyone (it was one of the New York Times’ Best 10 of 2014). The praise for an offering this slim (and somewhat disorienting and singularly unusual) has been resounding and unanimous.
There is no real plot here. A 30-something married writing teacher has a child, finds out that her husband is cheating with a much younger woman, flirts with a mental breakdown, convinces him to move out of New York and into the country with her. That’s it. Nothing much more happens, and there is nothing in the way of climax or resolution.
The plot (such as it is) is a slim foundation on which the author has her protagonist scatter a set of small thoughts, railleries, quotes from philosophers and poets, snippets of conversations, fractured descriptions of grief and anger and fear and bewilderment as the she grapples with the uncertainty and fog of her life and circumstances. Even the point of view startles, as the story switches suddenly from first person to third person, rudely forcing the reader to a reluctant distance.
But there is something truly beautiful here – we care deeply for her as she stumbles and unravels and tries and fails and falls afoul of her hopes and insecurities. Even though the structure of this book falls in the invisible gaps between diary and novel and poetry and (possibly)memoir, the narrative and character flourish and bloom quickly and convincingly and the reader thinks of her long after the book is finished, rooting for her amidst her flaws.
It is difficult to properly describe the novel, or more properly, what it is about and why it works. Think rather of a young woman, unsure of herself, sometimes sharp, sometimes inarticulate, stunned into paralysing anxiety by her love for her daughter, unhinged by the disloyalty of her always sweet husband, confused by her well meaning friends, trying to find her balance – her marriage, her career, her daughter, her life.
Department of Speculation makes you imagine you are her.