Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Knopf, 2014; 177 pp
Reviewed by Zach VandeZande
I have a friend who has a general disdain for showy, postmodern writing. When we read Ben Marcus together, for example, he said, “It’s like he lit me on fire just so I’d be happy when he peed on me.” While I was enamored with The Age of Wire and String’s daring subversion of language, he found it to be unreadable and tiresome. Of course, he’s entitled to feel this way about Marcus, but I do feel he’s missing the point. One of the writers over at the AV Club (probably Nathan Rabin, since he loves coining terms) talks frequently about the idea of a “hangout show”—a show where the energy of the show matters more to the audience than the story—and I think the idea applies here. Some authors, to me, are “hangout authors.” I don’t care about plot or character when I’m reading a book by Marcus or David Foster Wallace or Carole Maso. I want to hang around in that brain. I think, caught up as we are in MFA workshop culture that needs signposts like character development and plot structure and et cetera in order to have something to spend thirty minutes talking about as a group, we are terribly undervaluing this kind of writing, and I’d rather that not bleed through into the kinds of books that are being written.
That’s why Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is such a nice surprise: it’s a book that is at times structurally and syntactically daring, tangentially plotless, oblique, and unafraid to be embarrassing, yet still remains accessible. It’s an experiment we see too little of, especially from the major publishers. The plot, as it were, concerns the marriage of the narrator over a period of years, from the beginning through childbirth and the first signs of a less-than-perfect finish, but as a work it’s much more concerned with painting a portrait of the narrator’s mind.
This is high-wire writing in the vein of Carole Maso or Susan Steinberg, but whereas Maso trends toward the elegiac and Steinberg leans hard into her feminine power, Offill is engaged in one of the most underappreciated gifts that literature has for a reader: a sense of play. Offill has no qualms about going off on a long tangent on how one of the things we shipped into outer space on the Golden Record were thoughts of adultery, or indulging in all-caps ruminations about why women wear heels (“BECAUSE I AM A BIGGER BIRD THAN YOU!”). The novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness mosaic, and her best weapon throughout is surprise.
This is not to say that Offill is writing punchlines; it’s more that she’s structured the book in a way that allows her to go to the unexpected place and linger there for a moment. It feels more naturalistic (though what’s naturalistic?) to have a narrator that’s willing indulge the seeming non-sequitur or tangent—after all, which of us is single minded or dogged the way narrators normally are when telling a story? Offill writes at one point, “What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.” The cruft that we accumulate in our minds is important if we want to make a narrative out of a life. And that’s the goal here, it seems—to take the banal facts of a marriage, a child, some bugs, and another woman and turn it into something more, something special and invested with meaning.
The workshopper in me, the one who needs to say something smart to impress his peers and professor, might say, “But there’s no story here. Not enough happens!” And the reader in me, the one who’s looking first and foremost for human connection, would turn to him and tell him to beat it. That’s not always the point. There are other ways to be drawn close. There are other gifts to open.