I was supposed to be working this morning but realised my time would better spent telling you about Jenny Offill’s second book Dept. of Speculation. I read it last night in a single sitting so these are just a few uncut thoughts – for once it makes sense not to overanalyse. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.
This is my second consecutive review of a very short book which makes more of an impact than many full-length novels. After this one and Oscar Coop-Phane’s Zenith Hotel I am starting to really appreciate the ability certain (few) authors have to distill the sense of a complete life in very few words. This is known to be important in the writing of short stories and although these are standalone titles it’s a quality they undoubtedly share.
Jenny Offill’s first book Last Things was published in 1999. Like her, the unnamed wife in Dept. of Speculation is a novelist who teaches creative writing (at Columbia University and elsewhere, in Jenny Offill’s case) and whose second novel is taking a long time to materialise. This is an unflinching examination of marriage, parenthood, ageing, life – the eternal themes of fiction.
But Dept. of Speculation is proof that familiar subjects given fresh treatment can turn into something rare. This is an unusual narrative consisting of random and often apparently unconnected thoughts and observations from the wife’s point of view. It is broken up on the page, many paragraphs a single sentence so the prose doesn’t flow, but that is the point. This is less a portrait, more a series of dots which the reader gradually joins to reveal the woman’s emotional and experiential landscape. People don’t generally ‘think straight’, after all.
Despite its fragmentary structure there is a discernable line and arc in this account of marriage and family life. The woman is painfully recognisable, vulnerable and human – all things I want in a character. There are a couple of subtle shifts in narrative perspective and although I could see the significance I thought one worked slightly better than the other, but it mattered little in the end. In places it is very funny (everyone I know in Brooklyn is obsessed with bed bugs), very knowing (literary references abound – but also truth about life) but above all it is terribly poignant. Here is the Christmas round-robin she’d write if her husband wasn’t against it:
Dear Family and Friends,
It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the Pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.
Like the narrator, the writing throughout is intelligent, articulate and engagingly prickly. If I were to make one criticism, I found it an odd choice of title – the only associated reference I noticed in the text seemed especially obscure (maybe I missed others) and I find it annoyingly hard to remember what the S word is.
I say that only to show that it’s possible to maintain a critical head in the midst of an onslaught on the heart. The best books are often the ones that find a way to hurt. This one did. In a good way.
Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business. Once when he was still young, I saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid. But if was just a cowlick. Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness.
It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes.
On Friday I will be posting a combined book and event review on Timur Vermes’ controversial Hitler satire LOOK WHO’S BACK! after attending the launch. Early next week I’ll publish my version of Emma Chapman’s Six Degrees of Separation meme in book form. And after that I think I’m due a break!