“The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black, and when I stared at her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”
“My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.”
So, I’ve been wanting to read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation for a while. Certainly since I read Helen Phillips’ short essay on Offill for the Literary Mothers project (which I wrote about here). And then even more so after I read this wonderful conversation & book list.
For reasons of practicality (reading in the bath! shelf space!) and aesthetics (the UK cover was nothing on the US one), I didn’t want to buy it in hardback. So when I knew it was coming out in paperback, I ordered it. I had the dispatch email yesterday, publication day. Then, walking home from my second coffee date of the morning, I veered very slightly off-course & went into the Oxfam bookshop. And there, on the top shelf, with its beautiful rough-textured cover, was the North American hardback. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I’d read it before my package arrived this morning.
“What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.”
“The days with the baby felt long but there was nothing expansive about them. Caring for her required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious. They cut the day up into little scraps.”
Dept. of Speculation gave me that sense you get with certain books of opening up a whole new way to write. It’s breathtakingly spare, constructed paragraph by paragraph. It builds its effect through resonances and echoes, through snippets of philosophy and self-help books, through humour and through sentences that make you think, yes! yes! that’s exactly how it is. It’s also peppered with clues about how to read it (“It’s important to note the POV switch here,” the protagonist says she would tell her writing students, and Offill does indeed perform a POV switch from first person to third and later back again, as her protagonist’s relationship with her husband is shattered and then, tentatively, rebuilt).
And it starts, not with some huge historical event, but with the materials of everyday life. It takes life with a small child with its strange dislocating loss-of-self, and the negotiations of a marriage and makes art out of the mundane. It makes that material — largely an internal, emotional landscape — important.
In form, I thought a little of Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, a little of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, a little of Reality Hunger, David Shields’s manifesto for a fiction that smuggles in more reality, less artifice. (Shields’s references Renata Adler’s Speedboat as one of the works that started him down the ‘rabbit hole’ of new forms of narrative. Michiko Kakutani’s rather dismissive review of Dept. of Speculation posits that it owes a ‘huge debt’ to Speedboat & Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.) I thought of Open City and Leaving the Atocha Station. & their emphasis on the interiority of their protagonists. But in content, in the pure visceral reality of new motherhood, Offill’s work seems directly related to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work.
“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.”
I wanted to skip yoga last night to finish the book (‘the wife’ in Dept. of Speculation takes up yoga, but envies the “people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga”), but instead I lay on my mat thinking about permission, the necessity of making art that is contemporary, that grows out of our lives and the banality and urgency of our emotions, and that doesn’t simply depend on its plot for its effect. (Offill comments in a recent Guardian interview “If someone had described this novel to me, I would never have read it.” In the same interview she sums up her technique of compression: “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how you can say the most with the least.”). Art that reflects something of our experience — as mothers, as participants in human reliationships — back to us in ways that make us believe this experience has some worth.
“You need to read what I call “permission books”, that say you can write in a way you thought you couldn’t” Offill writes to Phillips. Dept. of Speculation, says Phillips, is “the ultimate permission book” and I think she’s right.
Should you be in the UK & want your own copy of Dept. of Speculation, I have one going spare. Just leave me a comment & I’d be happy to post it to you.