Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

Since I read Dept. of Speculation I’ve reread this wonderful piece by Emily Rapp; if you have not yet read either I recommend reading them together because they both bring together love, loss and family, and the loss that is built into loving things because all things are lose-able, in ways that feel important. How Offill’s protagonist “remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in”. I’m thinking too of that wonderful bit at the end of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! where Ava and Ossie are reunited and

“I’m not going anywhere,” she told me that night. But until we are old ladies—a cypress age, a Sawtooth age—I will continue to link arms with her, in public, in private, in a panic of love.

and I suppose this is an appropriate introduction to Offill’s book, which also pieces together other people’s words (often not that startling in and of themselves) and jigsaws them into things that end up meaning quite a lot to me. As is probably obvious in the piece below (from last weekend’s column) I found myself mostly quoting from and enthusing about the book—it’s hard to do much else without being more personal than I’m willing to be in public. But it mattered to me, and I suspect will continue to do so.



“The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)”
There’s something inherently suspicious about the aphorism as a form of literature (or communication of any sort, really); if only because in real life it so easily moves into the realm of platitude.
But what is on its own trite, simplistic, generally intolerable, can be used to great effect as part of something bigger and more meaningful. And Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, a novel told through a series of short paragraphs, aphorisms, lists, believe-it-or-not facts and quotes, does just this.
“My plan was never to get married,” says the unnamed narrator of Offill’s book. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” She writes a book, but does not become an art monster; she marries a husband who will not suborn himself to her art (“Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”), has a daughter, teaches in a university. An old acquaintance asks her why she never wrote a second book: “Did something happen?” “Yes,” she says.
Divided into two parts, in the first and third person, Dept. of Speculation tells first of the building of a life different to the one its author had planned for herself, then of the breakdown and subsequent, tentative rebuilding of that life. Of her love for her husband, who is built up in the first section of the book as perfect; kind and loving and generous in ways that are ominous to a reader who knows that it cannot last. Of her child, who is exhausting (“Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say”). I spoke above of the trite, the overused. There’s nothing surprising about the characters in Dept. of Speculation; the wife and mother with her artistic dreams frustrated, the husband whose midlife crisis manifests as an affair with a younger woman, the child who is the focus of intense love. It’s the very normalcy of these emotions that Offill often deploys in their favour. Of her daughter: “There is a picture of my mother holding me as a baby, a look of naked love on her face. For years, it embarrassed me. Now there is a picture of me with my daughter looking exactly the same way.” We’re reminded that all marriages are fragile, “held together with chewing gum and wire and string”. Ovid is quoted on the subject of infidelity to remind us that this story is as old as time. People cheat on their partners, parents love their children, women’s ambitions for their careers are frustrated by the demands of family. None of the principal actors in this tragedy are named; they could be anyone.

There is a husband who requires mileage receipts, another who wants sex at three a.m. One who forbids short haircuts, another who refuses to feed the pets. I would never put up with that, all the other wives think. Never.


And yet we’re never allowed to think of these characters as fitting into an obvious, therefore dismissable narrative. “I am not a cartoon wife,” insists the wife. She’s not. Dept. of Speculation spirals in- and outward between the very individual and the cosmic. A recurring motif is that of Carl Sagan and his “cosmic” love story (“because who can resist the urge to say silly things about Carl Sagan?”); a love story that also included the mundaneness of cheating on his wife.* Here, when the wife finds out about her husband’s infidelity the universe itself is thrown off balance.

 In the year 134 B.C., Hipparchus observed a new star. Until that moment he had believed steadfastly in the permanence of them. He then set out to catalog all the principal stars so as to know if any others appeared or disappear.


His eyes, god, his eyes, in the moment before he nodded his head.

Thales supposed the Earth to be flat and to float upon water.

 Anaxagoras thought the moon was an inhabited Earth.


It works in part because it’s so pared down. The novel is stripped of everything that is dispensable. You could make a case for it as poetry.
Earlier in the book the narrator sees in passing a vision of some disaster that sweeps the world, something “distant and imperfectly understood” that threatens everything that is good and vulnerable. “I won’t be happy until I know the name of this thing,” she says, and we never do find out its name but we know by the end what it is. It’s an unhappiness that stalks all happiness, a brokenness that is built into every love. It’s “how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.” It’s love that is hopeless, and tired, and doomed.



*I don’t know anything about Sagan’s personal life, so am basing this on Offill’s book.

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