motherhood, reading
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Dept. of Speculation

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill

“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.


    • Sarah says

      We did get bread first, but you have to admit that it’s the nicest route back from the bakery…even if you don’t stop in Oxfam 🙂 And, yes, you can have my extra copy. Handing over at school is even easier than going to the Post Office (which, come to think of it, would risk passing Oxfam again!).

    • Sarah says

      Yes, I did, despite not quite managing the single-gulp read! And so funny about the covers — I can see that the UK one shows the fragmented, jigsaw-like structure — but it just reminded me too much of Tetris. (Just looked again at both of your covers — beautiful in both UK & US editions. But what an interesting art it is…)

  1. You wrote:

    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.

    A one-sentence review that moves it to the top of my reading list. Thank you.

    • Sarah says

      Oh, Rachael! Console yourself with the thought that it’s a very quick read. I hope you enjoy it when you get to the top of the queue. I think it’s worth waiting for!

  2. Various notes:
    – Daffodils?!?!? Oh, lucky, lucky, you.
    – I must reread that book. I had forgotten all the bits about early motherhood. Also, the shift in POV. All I remembered was the relationship with the husband, because … (I can’t finish this sentence without a spoiler, so for those in this thread who have not read the book, I’ll stop here.)
    – I have never wanted to be an art monster. But I have been thinking about killing the Angel in the House.
    – It turns out that this whole time, I actually knew Helen Phillips. Her daughter & my younger son went to the same daycare last year.

    • Sarah says

      Hi Rachael. Yes, daffodils — those ones bought, but the first ones are just unfurling in the garden. It’s like the bluebells last year all over again. I’d never realised how cold NY is. And no, I’ve never wanted to be an art monster either — and still pondering why VW put the need to kill the Angel in the House in the past tense. I’m reading ‘To The River’ by Olivia Laing which is a wonderful — a journey along the Ouse full of Woolf thoughts & quotes (and lots more besides). Sometimes I wonder if not wanting to be an art monster (or any kind of monster) isn’t part of the problem. And an aside, but I’m enjoying your morning writing tweets so very much — they fill me with hope & make me smile. I think it’s the realism — the juxtaposition of poetry and kids, poetry and breakfast things etc. Sounds like you’re on a roll. Good luck killing that Angel.

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