Book Review: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation

imgresThis one had popped up on many-a “Best of” lists at the end of last year, and from all of the flattering reviews (and we all know how accurate they can be…) I thought I’d give it a try. It’s a short book, a read one can do in a single sitting if one has the time, or, if you’re like me, over the course of several short subway rides to work. What I’d been told about it (that it was the story of a woman in Brooklyn, the fluctuations of love and marriage and children with the passage of time) did not even begin to mention the most important part of this gentle, important book: that every single line was so precise it felt like a stab in the gut.

Offill does not write in traditional narrative form, but instead in short prose paragraphs and single lines that hold so. much. meaning. In only 177 pages we photo 1follow her from dating, to love, to marriage, to kid, to marriage breakdown, to mental breakdown, to relocation, to marriage rekindle, all intermixed with art, philosophy, religion, literature, and some tangential discussion of aeronautics. Each paragraph is written with the ease of a person writing in their journal (some very eloquent person, that is) though surely Offill spent more time laboring over each word than it seems, which is the beauty of the piece. It feels effortless, even when we as writers know it’s anything but.

There’s a beautifully-executed point of view switch that occurs sometime toward the middle-end of the book, where the heartache of her marriage unfolds and Offill, perhaps as her own self-defense mechanism, switches to the third person after spending the whole first third of the book in first. (*note, I wrote the previous line under the auspices that this was nonfiction. I now understand it is not, which makes it, to me, that much more incredible. That said, I regret the error, and more, the assumption that this type of zeroed-in, profoundly emotional prose couldn’t be completely made up in the writer’s mind.) ” For example, we go from: “So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it, my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying, I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.” to: “And then there is the night that he misses putting their daughter to bed. He calls to say he is leaving work right when she thinks he will be home, something he has never done before.” Offill’s switch to that of a passive observer happens so seamlessly that by the time I realized it had happened, several pages after the fact, I had to go back to check that the story had begun in first person. And then, finally, the last page, the rekindling, we are back in first person. It’s something so slight that adds incredible power to the story.

photo 2It’s interesting to note one other thing about this POV-switch. In the chapter where our narrator meets the young woman her husband has been sleeping with, the story telling is markedly different from the rest of the book. Our narrator teaches college-level writing, and the section is written as if her student were telling the story and she were editing the section. It begins: “She would not have let one of her students write the scene this way. Not with the pouring rain and the wife’s broken umbrella and the girl in her long black coat. To begin with, she’d suggest taking out the first scene on the subway, the boring one, where the wife pretends to be a Buddhist. (I am a person, she is a person, I am a person, she is a person, etc.) Needed? Can this be shown through gesture?

Another brilliant trick from a masterful writer.

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There were so many lovely lines, and I unfortunately only began underlining midway through, only to realize there were so many in the beginning that made my heart sink. A few that I found especially gut-stabbing:

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.

Later, when we signed the lease, we were happy about the jungle gym because I’d learned that I was pregnant and we could imagine its uses. But by the time we moved in, we had found out that the baby’s heart had stopped and now it just made us sad to look out the window at it.

Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say. The swirl of hair on the back of her head. We must have taken a thousand pictures of it.

She remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in. She laid her head on his chest and listened to his heart. One day this too will stop, she thought. The no, no, no of it.

I could go on. The point is, the story is beautiful, I’ve discovered a new favorite writer for my collection, and if you already haven’t, hopefully soon you will allow discover her as well.

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