A Wonderful Book: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation

Praise on praise for Offill’s work and its charms.

Swoon.

Swoon.

I just finished Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, and, you guys, I am in love. What Offill has done is something that is so incredibly difficult: be innovative in form without sacrificing content. I see writers try to pull off this hat trick all the damn time, and it’s seldom the case that anyone really, truly succeeds [case(s) in point: I couldn’t make it past the first few pages of the Lydia Davis book I perused during brunch last weekend, and I very much was not into Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad, despite the critical acclaim it received].  In short, I am a very tough critic of those that seek to veer from the traditional, linear path of the novel, and as such, am nothing short of starry-eyed and over the moon when a writer like Offill succeeds in veering.

To speak to Offill’s book specifically: the subject, insofar as there is one, is a middle-aged woman on the verge of a breakdown. Referring to her exclusively as “the wife,” Offill paints a portrait of a woman whose default setting is ennui. Feeling bereft in her career (as a writer/teacher), and personal life (as a wife/mother), “the wife” is then unexpectedly confronted with her husband’s affair. She spends the remainder of the book dealing with the fallout, achieving a stunted and fairly limited resolution towards the end.

On choosing to write about such well-trod subject matter, Offill has said:

I felt incredible trepidation about writing about motherhood and marriage. I was particularly not interested in writing a book that had an affair in it, because I thought that we’ve all read that a million times. But at a certain point, I realized that I wanted the book to kind of break apart in the middle — to have a before and an after. And I realized that if you defamiliarize things enough, you really can write about anything.

This fractured technique is a bold move by Offill, and a difficult one. As such, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to how Offill pulls it off, and if you’ll stay with me here I’d like to lay out a few of my hunches:

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  • Refinement. While the number of subjects “the wife” muses on feels random and infinite at times, it’s actually a rather narrow range of topics (chief among them: the wife’s career, the couple’s daughter, the husband’s affair, the wife’s ghostwritten book on space exploration, bedbugs, and numerous quotes from various writers–especially Rilke). By sticking largely to this ingeniously curated list, Offill keeps things from feeling too fragmented and out of place; the ability to return to these topics enables her to anchor her piece, and gives us as readers something to latch onto.
  • Structure.  While the story feels highly fragmented from moment to moment, it actually does move largely chronologically. We see the wife lay out her “normal” (however emotionally skewed it may be), then veer away from that as her husband’s affair is revealed, and later attempt to find her way forward through therapy, and more. Having a structure like this, even a loose one, again keeps the book from going off the rails entirely. I’d go so far as to say that Offill’s structure not only works as well as a more traditionally linear storyline, but better mirrors the experiences of many in the throes of marital infidelity (bumbling blindly through thought and emotion, with only the occasional signpost).
  • Poetic prose. Every individual sentence in Offill’s work is beautifully rendered, to the point where I questioned at times whether I was reading continued poetry. Her ability to turn an elegant and starkly honest phrase is what enables much of her prose to work on a page-to-page level. She also straddles the line between vast sadness and humor in a way that recalls Lorrie Moore, which is perhaps one reason I’m so drawn to her writing.
  • Personal territory. The emotional realities Offill creates through her form feel so remarkably on point that I initially believed Dept of Spec. was, without a doubt, a memoir. I  was subsequently stunned to learn the piece was fictional, an entirely constructed reality. Nonetheless, Offill admits that she’s wading into emotionally familiar territory with her central character (her words: “There are many autobiographical things in the book…I can be bolder on the page, as a character. I can gnash my teeth, I can scream and yell, in a way that I’m perhaps too timid to do in real life.”). In creating a character who resides in spaces (wife, mother, teacher, writer) she knows well, I believe Offill is able to better discern what resonates and what doesn’t as she experiments with form.

Note that this (entirely speculative) list isn’t meant to be exhaustive–it is, in fact, my sincere hope that it isn’t. I like authors whose work is able to retain a bit of a magical sheen even after I’ve analyzed it, which is to say I love the ones who always seem to have something up their sleeves. I’ve heard it said that writing is like seducing a girl in a bar, and insofar as that’s true, the greatest writers in my opinion are the ones whose processes aren’t entirely transparent, not readily deconstruct-able. It’s these folks (like Offill) who catch my eye, keep me engaged, and ultimately make it to my most private of places: the bookshelves.

xox E

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