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Dept. of Speculation (2014)

by Jenny Offill

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,4981188,727 (3.72)126
"Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all. Jenny Offill's heroine, referred to in these pages as simply "the wife," once exchanged love letters with her husband, postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes--a colicky baby, bedbugs, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions--the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it, as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art. With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation can be read in a single sitting, but there are enough bracing emotional insights in these pages to fill a much longer novel. "--… (more)
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English (115)  Spanish (2)  Catalan (1)  All languages (118)
Showing 1-5 of 115 (next | show all)
As with many, I read this in one sitting and experienced a variety of responsive emotions to the author & the work (as opposed to the story/characters)... annoyance, understanding, respect, and then, in the end, just a little bit of disappointment (thus 4, rather than 5 stars). I have lots of unformed thoughts at this point, so I'll postpone any more review.... ( )
  avanders | Nov 23, 2020 |
The epigraph sets the tone: "Speculators on the universe are no better than madmen." Socrates Beautifully written, but obliquely told story of a young couple in NYC - how they meet, fall in love, get married, have a child, fall apart and ultimately survive. The characters are not named -- "the wife" tells the story, mostly in first person, but switches occasionally to third person to create some distance between herself and the action. More than narrative driven plot, it is observations and short poetic paragraphs that make the story feel very artsy and carefully constructed. There are some very raw truths about adjusting to marriage and motherhood and the emotional challenges that presents especially to someone with an artistic temperament. "Of course it's difficult." she is told "You are creating a creature with a soul." (40) Clearly, the narrator (author?) is very intelligent for there are riffs on science and philosophy and literature with great quotes seamlessly incorporated at just the right times. For example, "Simone Weil said ' Attention without object is a supreme form of prayer.' (54) Finally, as she faces crisis, she finds her strength. It is a gut-wrenching process that she describes well: "But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be." (114) There is resolution and realization at the end that are worth reading for. ( )
  CarrieWuj | Oct 24, 2020 |
"Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space." Clever! Because this book is a bunch of tiny particle-memories, short paragraphs or sentences reporting the life of 'the wife.' One of the things nobody has ever said about the wife, we learn on p 68, is that she needs to take herself more seriously. That is absolutely true. If the narrator of this book took herself any more seriously, she would be an existentialist philosopher. Perhaps she already is.

I know people like to read about experiences they've had/could easily have. I know that for most people who read 'literary fiction,' that means reading about school, marriage, kids, divorce, literary fiction, and death. And I know that there are *more* than enough books about those topics, so you have to do something to make your book about marriage, kids, divorce, and literary fiction stand out. Offill has done that by using fragmented forms and other tricks (the taking yourself seriously business comes from a list, for instance). Also, it's nicely written and short.

Thankfully Offill is unwilling to be just another recorder of domestic unhappiness. She brings together astronomy (see Edison stuff above), Buddhism, and other cod-philosophical reflections from the armchair to fill out an otherwise thin book about a couple who has kids, but then he cheats, but (plot spoiler!) it's okay because they forgive each other.

I was half inclined to write all this off as padding, but the Buddhism, at least, does fit in--but I only worked that out because I am, coincidentally, reading a bit of Japanese Buddhism. Apparently there was a real problem in medieval Japan for Buddhists, who vacillated wildly between acknowledging the transience of all existence (thus setting themselves up for salvation and the Pure Land), and actually really starting to *like* the transience and appreciating it for its own sake, which made their life bearable in this world. The same seems to be happening here: is Offill's attention to the quotidian an act of piety that makes the book worthwhile? Or is it just ruining our chance to think about something more important?

That's a really important question, and the book does a nice job of posing it. The implied answer is that the attention to the quotidian is worthwhile and important. But you can only really come to that conclusion if you like your books relatable, rather than imaginative. It also helps if you think Tolstoy was right about unhappy families, when, if contemporary fiction is any indication, he was actually *100%* wrong.

Speaking of the 19th century, everything about this book is so class specific that it makes Austen look like Balzac. That's a real problem for a book that takes itself *this* seriously. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
I had heard and read a fair amount of praise for Jenny Offil's Dept. of Speculation so I was excited to finally pick it up and give it a whirl. Among the reviews and details I'd heard was a lot of commentary about the style and structure of the book so I jumped in with a decent sense of what to expect. Having read the book, I can say that the plot of the book is fairly straightforward and somewhat unremarkable (at least In My Opinion) so it makes sense that most of the praise is about the structure, style and technique of the book.

The story tells about the life of a woman over the course of a few years. It describes her dating life, her work life, her married life, her life as a mother and (*spoiler*) her life as a divorcee. The course of her life is often rather mundane, though she does have numerous sparks of interest that come off as humorous or at least a little intriguing (for example, her work as a fact checker or ghost writing for an 'almost astronaut'). Even though it's not entirely predictable, the plot line felt very familiar and didn't really strain the reader too much to dive into the life of the narrator.

The book is arranged as a bunch of short chapters populated by a bunch of short paragraphs composed of short sentences. It gave me a stream-of-consciousness meets mental scrapbook kind of vibe. A lot of the terse sentences (and even the paragraphs) could have come from someone's Twitter feed. These rapid fire thoughts made the entire novel very easy to race through, almost skimming the pages without meaning to. Numerous times I found that I had devoured 20 pages in a matter of a few minutes and, while I felt like I understood the plot/story progression I read, I ended up wanting to circle back and re-read in order to nibble the nuances again.

...And that's where the book shines. Even though the short twitter-like format allows for quick digestion, the individual thoughts and sentences don't feel rushed. The language is natural and comfortable but it is also very thoughtful and has plenty of significance. Each section deals with common, run-of-the-mill activities and interactions but the language really makes each moment seem more alive.

Offill showcases great skill in her narrative structure. She compiles a dynamic work of art by interlacing thousands of brief snippets of sentences and paragraphs into a fragile house of words. She develops her characters through peripheral interactions and playful manipulation of the timeline of events. The story is told from the woman's point of view but her point of view and her language changes at certain points in the novel, mirroring the narrator's mental and emotional state and perhaps her sense of understanding and belonging in the world she's narrating. The art, skill and technique of the book are certainly worth investigating and I would not be surprised at all to see this book on the curriculum of a Creative Writing or Literary Analysis course.

All of that said, this narrative style isn't always my favorite. I never have been a huge fan of the stream of consciousness technique and I haven't grabbed onto stories written as social media posts. I certainly admire the poetic hard work that comes in refining the words into something so conscise while still retaining meaning but I still end up left wanting more meat, more substance.

I frequently smiled at the brief quips and one-off insights that the narrator drops. I nodded and enjoyed many of the poignant or insightful observations about relationships, people or the world in general. I was emotionally stirred at the plight of this young wife and mother as she struggled to find her place in the world only to have it tossed into upheaval. I felt familiarity as she explained her mental and emotional anguishes amid the trials of life.

I enjoyed the book generally and appreciated the art and structure of if. I just didn't Love the novel in a way that left me gushing about it in the way I'd heard so many reviewers do over the past few years. I found it to be an intriguing read from an artistic and aesthetic sense more than from an entertaining sense. Let me know your thoughts. Have you read this novel? What did you love or not love about it?

***
3 out of 5 stars ( )
  theokester | Oct 9, 2020 |
I'm giving this 1 star because it made me uncomfortable the whole time, not necessarily because it was objectively bad. But this is definitely in that category of books that I struggle to understand because of how off-putting it was. ( )
  PhasicDA | Aug 3, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 115 (next | show all)
If Rainer Maria Rilke had written a novel about marriage, it might look something like this: a series of paragraphs, seldom exceeding more than a dozen lines, sometimes without much apparent connection to the text on either side.
added by sturlington | editKirkus Reviews (Nov 27, 2013)
 

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Epigraph
Speculators on the universe...
are no better than madmen.

Socrates
Dedication
For Dave
First words
Antelopes have 10x vision, you said.
Quotations
But the smell of her hair. The way she clasped her hand around my fingers. This was like medicine. For once, I didn’t have to think. The animal was ascendant.
The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all. Jenny Offill's heroine, referred to in these pages as simply "the wife," once exchanged love letters with her husband, postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes--a colicky baby, bedbugs, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions--the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it, as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art. With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation can be read in a single sitting, but there are enough bracing emotional insights in these pages to fill a much longer novel. "--

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