Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was published in 1999 and told the story of an 8-year-old girl named Grace, living in a small lakeside town in Vermont, being raised by a mother who at first appears whimsical and eccentric, but who the reader gradually comes to realize is mentally ill. It is easy to see why readers and critics compared it to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping at the time—both novels tell the story of young girls growing up with absent or damaged parents, in a starkly rural setting, and employing a lush, pointillist prose style. As with Robinson’s work, fans of Offill’s first book have had to wait some time for her second—24 years in Robinson’s case, 15 in Offill’s. But where Robinson’s second novel expanded in scope and page count Offill’s has stripped down to the bare bones.
Dept. of Speculation is a story that seems to take place over a series of months, about an unraveling urban marriage. It is told in a series of short paragraphs and aphorisms, many no longer than a single line. Its publisher calls it “a novel to be devoured in a single sitting” and has published it in a compact, elegant trim size that could fit handily in a back jeans pocket.
Last Things told its story from the perspective of a child trying to understand her distressed mother; Dept. of Speculation takes the perspective of the distressed mother, trying to understand what her child and her marriage have done to her life as an independent woman. The unnamed narrator had plans to be an “art monster”—in her 20s she kept a post-it with the words “WORK NOT LOVE!” tacked above her desk—but since turning in her first book at 29 she has been stalled on the second; the head of her teaching department is fond of saying “tick tock, tick tock,” and when she runs into old friends on the street they say things like, “I think I must have missed your second book.” No, the narrator says, “There isn’t one.” “Did something happen?” the old friend says kindly. “Yes,” the narrator says.
That “yes” is the daily work of dealing with a baby who never wants to sleep; bedbugs that force the family to store all their belongings in plastic bags and cook their clothes in an incubator every day before they leave the house; creative writing assignments from students who don’t know the difference between definite and indefinite articles; and mind-numbing ghostwriting projects that the narrator has to take because, as her husband tells her, “it turns out we’re running low on money for diapers and beer and potato chips.” The narrator thinks of the initial phases of romantic love as a kind of sickness—she cites research showing similarities in the brain activity of those who are newly in love with that of drug addicts—and struggles to remember the days when she felt this for her husband, a sound engineer who makes a piecemeal living scoring commercials and doing other miscellaneous jobs.
One has the sense that their marriage has been so deadened by the daily grind of domesticity, the struggle for money, and the work of raising a child that it almost feels like a relief when it is revealed that the husband is having an affair, because here at last is something that will bring movement again into the relationship, positive or negative. The narrator will have to decide whether she wants to forgive the husband; the husband will have to decide whether he wants to give up his lover.
The decay of passionate love that often accompanies marriage, the struggle to balance career and family ambitions—this is not new territory for contemporary fiction, but what is so startling and memorable about Offill’s book is the complexity she creates for the narrator, by refusing to see any of her dilemmas in black and white. The narrator feels ruined by motherhood; her days cut up into “little scraps” that have the “peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious.” At the same time there is the smell of the baby’s hair; “the way she clasped her hand around my fingers. This was like medicine.” When someone asks the narrator if the baby is a good baby the answer is “Well, no, I’d say.” This is followed by: “That swirl of hair on the back of her head. We must have taken a thousand pictures of it.” The narrator is both horrifically undone by her husband’s betrayal—“There is nowhere to cry in this city,” she says at one point, while doing so almost everywhere—at the same time that she can’t forget the expression on his face, when he heard their baby’s heartbeat on the electronic machines at the doctor’s office (“a sound like horses galloping”). She is still entranced by his everyday kindness and belief that people “mean well”; his ability to fix things. The narrator is someone who hates people “often and easily”; who will constantly lament “how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.”
As the wife and husband struggle to work things out in their marriage, arguing each day in what the wife calls “the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings” a kind of healing seems to begin, in a way that is impossible to attribute to one specific cause. They leave the city; they watch their daughter growing up; the wife starts to accept the idea that the creation of art is something that requires as deep a sacrifice as her marriage—deeper and more painful than her youthful self could have ever fathomed. She cites a line from Rilke: “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.” Offill’s novel is a blistering illustration of the notion, often referenced in Buddhist thinking, that the only way out is through. One of the narrator’s friends tells an idealistic youngster who is with them at a dinner party that he is “‘not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones,’” and the novel shows the painful work that is involved in making peace with this discrepancy. The novel ends on a note of hope, however, and a sense of fullness returning to the narrator’s life and marriage. The last chapter of the book consists of two full paragraphs rather than short sentences, and shifts from third to first person narration: the couple is now a “we” again, watching their daughter come home from school.
Dept. of Speculation is a novel that looks to writers like Rilke, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf for inspiration as to what novel writing can be—fluid, observational, rawly emotional at times, opposed to the building of grand systems and theories. Offill’s narrator quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.” Another apt quote from Wittgenstein might be: “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Offill has written a serious and good novel consisting almost entirely of aphorisms, and there is as much wisdom to be found in its pithy riddles and maxims as in a thousand-page epic.