Jenny Offill Takes Readers from the Personal to the Cosmic in 'Dept. of Speculation'
I read Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation for the first time in a senior literary seminar called "The In-Between Novel." The professor, who himself was in the middle of reading it, had scanned the first 50 pages for us to read. I devoured them in 40 minutes, bought the book a few days later, polished off the remaining 130 pages (starting again from the beginning, of course) and have since reread the book at least three times. Wash, rinse, repeat — and cry, cry, cry.
The plot of Dept. of Speculation is a simple one: A woman (the female narrator) dates, a woman marries, a woman has a (rather collicky) child, and then, suddenly, a woman's husband is unfaithful to her. But for Offill, it's what happens in between, the novel's in-betweenness, that matters; plot is secondary.
"There is still such a crookedness in my heart," Offill writes as her narrator. "I thought loving two people so much would straighten it."
The book moves along in short paragraphs, at times just a single line long. These episodes sometimes belong to the particularities of the narrator's life — her "devil baby," who refuses to keep a hat on her head, her husband, who she manages to secretly flip off while holding hands in bed, and her battles with herself. ("There is still such a crookedness in my heart," she says. "I thought loving two people so much would straighten it.") The richness of Dept. of Speculation, though, is thanks to what surrounds these moments. Offill prepares the reader for what more to expect right at the outset of the book:
"Antelopes have 10x vision, you said," writes Offill. "It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn."
In these first lines, Offill establishes the scale of what Dept. of Speculation will deal with: everything from the joys and devastations of her protagonist to the laws that govern the entire cosmos. Held up next to the narrator's grief over her crumbling marriage, facts like "The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering" are given new meaning. ("Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three," Offill adds.)
Though the awfulness of the human condition is well documented, Dept. of Speculation is never trite. Instead of wallowing in the details of conversations and interactions, Offill passes right through them, and even the novel's most pivotal moments are written sparsely.
When the narrator discovers her husband has been with another woman, Offill uses just four words: The narrator asks, "Taller? Thinner? Quieter?" The husband answers, "Easier."
Dept. of Speculation is subtle and quiet as it takes you through the narrator's high highs and low lows. It drags you through the shit, but you'll be a better person for it (at least in my estimation). It's best read in one sitting, maybe on the beach, or on a porch with a creaky swing or on the subway where no one cares if you openly cry.