Dept. of Speculation

( 4 )

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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, 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 is a novel to be devoured in a single sitting, though its bracing emotional insights and piercing meditations on despair and love will linger long after the last page.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Roxane Gay
…charts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose…Dept. of Speculation moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others…Offill is a smart writer with a canny sense of pacing; just when you want to abandon the fragmented puzzle pieces of the novel, she reveals a moment of breathtaking tenderness…Dept. of Speculation is especially engaging when it describes new motherhood—the stunned joy and loneliness and fatigue of it, the new orientation of the narrator's world around an impossibly small but demanding creature.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/25/2013
Popping prose and touching vignettes of marriage and motherhood fill Offill’s (Last Things) slim second book of fiction. Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises. The 46 short chapters are told mostly in brief fragments and fly through the life of the nameless heroine. Her mind wanders from everyday tasks and struggles, the beginnings of her marriage, the highs and lows with her husband, the joys of having a daughter. These domestic bits are contrasted by far-flung thoughts that whirl in every direction, from space aviation and sea exploration to ancient philosophy and Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics. Anecdotes and quotes also come from all over: Einstein, Eliot, Keats, Rilke, Wittgenstein, Darwin, and Carl Sagan. Often, the use of third person places the heroine at a distance, examining the macro-reality of her life, but then Offill will zoom in, giving the reader a view into her heroine’s inner life—notes, graded papers and corrected manuscripts, monologues, imagined Christmas cards and questionnaires. Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it’s her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read: “Just after she turns five my daughter starts making confessions to me. It seems she is noticing her thoughts as thoughts for the first time and wants absolution.... I thought of stepping on her foot, but I didn’t. I tried to make her a little bit jealous. I pretended to be mad at him. ‘Everybody has bad thoughts,’ I tell her. ‘Just try not to act on them.’ ” (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“A novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors. If it is a distressed account of a marriage in distress, it is also a poem in praise of the married state. If it brutally tears apart the boredom and frustrations of parenthood, it also solidly inhabits the joys and consolations of having a child. If it laments the work not done, the books not written, the aspirations unfulfilled, it also represents work well done, a book written, the fruit of aspiration . . . It is often extremely funny, and often painful; earnestly direct but glancingly ironic, even whimsical . . . Offill’s narrator is curious, witty, intellectual, literary, insomniac, and rawly honest both about others and about herself. She is invigorating company, but won’t go out of her way to make herself charming or genial. She is thin-skinned, fatigued, and full of embattled chagrin. In short, she is alive . . . Reminiscent at times of Lydia Davis’s short texts . . . Its depth and intensity make a stealthy purchase on the reader . . . Offill’s brief book eschews obvious grandeur. It does not broadcast its accomplishments for the cosmos but tracks the personal and domestic and local, a harrowed inner space. It concentrates its mass acutely, with exquisite and painful precision.”
            —James Wood, The New Yorker 

“Slender, quietly smashing . . . The story shifts and skitters, spare but intricate as filigree, short bursts of observation and memory—comic, startling, searing—floating in white space . . . Offill has tapped a vein directly into the experience of this marriage, this little family, this subsuming of self, and we mainline it right along with her . . . A book so radiant, so sparkling with sunlight and sorrow, that it almost makes a person gasp.”
            —Boston Globe 
 
“Breathtaking . . . Reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Speedboat but with a less bitter edge . . . Dept. of Speculation charts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose . . . Moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others . . . Offill is a smart writer with a canny sense of pacing . . . She deftly moves the novel forward with elegant shifts of point of view.”
            —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Riveting . . . Unsentimental . . . Combines eclectic minutia with a laser-like narrative of a family on the edge of dissolution . . . Paragraphs shatter, surreal details rise up and into the narrative . . . A jewel of a book, a novel as funny, honest, and beguiling as any I have read.”
            —Los Angeles Times 

“Offill’s unnamed heroine . . . has a lot in common with the narrators of [Renata Adler’s] Speedboat and [Elizabeth Hardwick’s] Sleepless Nights: she is observant and literary minded, given to seeing the odd connections (or lack of connections) among the things that make up her day-to-day life and the more subterranean thoughts that jitter around in her head. She also has a lot in common with Joan Didion’s heroines . . . A genuinely moving story of love lost and perhaps, provisionally, recovered.”
            —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Absorbing and highly readable . . . Offill has successfully met the challenge she seems to have given herself: write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And do it in a series of bulletins, fortune-cookie commentary, mordant observations, lyrical phrasing. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone’s domestic life . . . Intriguing, beautifully written, sly, and often profound.”
            —Meg Wolitzer, NPR

“Introspective and resonant . . . Brave . . . Offill uses her novel to explore the question of how to be an artist as well as a wife and mother, when these states can feel impossibly contradictory . . . She’s willing to put it all on the page, the mundane alongside the profound, revealing that they’re not quite as different as we might have thought.”
            —San Francisco Chronicle

“Audacious . . . Hilarious . . . Dept. of Speculation reveals a raw marital reality that continues to be expunged from the pervasive narrative of marriage . . . Offill moves quickly and poetically over deeply introspective questions about long-term partnerships, parenthood, and aging . . . From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers. There is a complexity to the central partnership; Offill folds cynicism into genuine moments of love. It may be difficult to truly know what happens between two people, but Offill gets alarmingly close.”
            —The Atlantic

Dept. of Speculation is a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity, and sweetness . . . A shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don’t quite understand, until they give in and read it too.”         
            —The Guardian 

Dept. of Speculation is a startling feat of storytelling—an intense and witty meditation on motherhood, infidelity, and identity, each line a dazzling, perfectly chiseled arrowhead aimed at your heart.”
            —Vanity Fair
 
“Offill somehow manages to pack the sprawling story of an ordinary marriage, both the good bits and the bad, into a small, poetic book. Rendered entirely in a series of staccato vignettes, Dept. of Speculation is told from the point of view of the bookish, funny wife . . . Yes, there’s joylessness here, but there’s also real joy. Grade: A-.”
            —Entertainment Weekly 

“Brilliant, risk-taking . . . Mesmerizing . . . Infinitely quotable . . . Dept. of Speculation is astute and affecting on the politics of relationships and the burdens of day-to-day living; of children, work, and the feeling that life is passing us by. Offill has created a masterpiece that is philosophical, funny, and moving. This is a book that’s not easily forgotten.”       
            —Irish Times

“Poetic in its beauty and intensity . . . Very funny . . . In this slim, beautiful work, the short paragraphs read as a series of carefully crafted vignettes, linked yet strong enough to stand alone . . . Every one of these short paragraphs carries weight: each is a thought, an observation, snatches of banal conversation, a weird fact. Everything matters here, from the lofty to the banal . . . It is about life, unvarnished, yet every bit of it made profound by Offill’s glorious prose.”
            —Financial Times

“Quirky, endearing, affecting and deep. And did I mention funny? Dept. of Speculation spends its days and nights perfectly navigating that Lilliputian line between comedy and tragedy. More quilt than book, it is a pastiche of small pieces . . . A reader is rapidly drawn to its one-paragraph vignettes, sayings and poems, its quick literary references and quotes . . . We are captivated. We cannot help ourselves. We laugh, we clap, we cry with the wife. We find, in Dept. of Speculation, moments that take our breath away. And we recognize parts of ourselves in its pages.”
            —The Buffalo News

“Hilarious, poignant . . . So beautifully written that it begs multiple reads . . . Soul-bearing fiction at its best . . . Dept. of Speculation doesn’t just resign itself to the disappointment of failed dreams that crop up in middle age. Instead, endurance to the end of a crisis generates wisdom, hope, and, perhaps, even art.” 
            —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

“Jenny Offill’s mini marvel of a novel, about an urban marriage in crisis, unfolds in tart, tiny chapters suffused with pithy philosophical musings, scientific tidbits, and poetic sayings that collectively guide a brainy, beleaguered couple through the tricky emotional terrain of their once wondrous, now wobbly union.”
            —Elle
 
“A book of constant surprise . . . It’s impossible to keep from returning to sections to savor them . . . It’s impossible to put the book down . . . The complex brilliance of Offill is very difficult to write about. There are adjectives like funny, unsettling, daring, poetic, poignant, and insightful to describe the power of her tiny book. They aren’t enough. They simply are not.”
            —Anniston Star

“Piercingly honest . . . A series of wry vignettes that deepen movingly.”
            —Vogue
    
“Winsome . . . Wry . . . Lovely . . . Offill is a poetic, piercing writer.”
            —USA Today 

“Marvelously huge in insight and honesty. Rich with humor, and deep with despair, Dept. of Speculation paints a masterful portrait of the nuts and the bolts and the warts and the silky splendor that defines commitment—the commitment to live in close quarters with other humans . . . A quick, beautiful read that will draw out joy just as quickly as sadness, and may even cause one to pause and then wonder, and then to finally embrace both the misery and the magic of marriage.”
            —New York Journal of Books

“Closely observed . . . Brilliant . . . Such observed moments of boredom, joy, and terror are the triumph of this novel, spilling the panic, pain, and confusion of marriage and motherhood on to the page.”
            —Telegraph
 
“Nothing short of stunning . . . Dept. of Speculation is a thousand small moments of rage, beauty, grief, and joy. In its few pages, it captures the overpowering emotional resonance of everyday existence . . . Offill reveals what we are at our core.”
            —Victoria Advocate 

“Very beautiful and funny and wise . . . Manages to hop elegantly from Kafka to Eliot, from Frederick Cook to Russian astronauts.”
            —The Barnes & Noble Review

“Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises . . . Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it’s her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read.”
            —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"A magnetic novel about a marriage of giddy bliss and stratospheric anxiety, bedrock alliance and wrenching tectonic shifts . . . So precisely articulate that [Offill's] perfect, simple sentences vibrate like violin strings. And she is mordantly funny, a wry taxonomist of emotions and relationships . . . She has sliced life thin enough for a microscope and magnified it until it fills the mind's eye and the heart."
            —Booklist

“Exquisitely honed and vibrant . . . The reader easily identifies with [the narrator’s] struggles and frustrations . . . An enlightened choice for a reading group.”
            —Library Journal

“If Rainer Maria Rilke had written a novel, it might look something like this . . . Lyrical . . . Philosophically rich . . . Moments of literary experimentation worthy of Virginia Woolf.”
            —Kirkus 

“Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation resembles no book I’ve read before. If I tell you that it’s funny, and moving, and true; that it’s as compact and mysterious as a neutron; that it tells a profound story of love and parenthood while invoking (among others) Keats, Kafka, Einstein, Russian cosmonauts, and advice for the housewife of 1896, will you please simply believe me, and read it?”
            —Michael Cunningham
 
 “Dept. of Speculation is gorgeous, funny, a profound and profoundly moving work of art. Jenny Offill is a master of form and feeling, and she gets life on the page in new, startling ways.”
            —Sam Lipsyte
 
“A heartbreaking and exceptional book by a writer who doesn't settle for less—I’ve been longing for a new novel from Jenny Offill since her stunning Last Things, and it was worth every bit of the wait. Sad, funny, philosophical, at once deeply poetic and deeply engaging, this is a brilliant, soulful elegy to the hardships and joys of married life.”
            —Lydia Millet

“Dept. of Speculation is a deep, funny, and beautifully written novel. It is a moving and intelligent story of a specific marriage, but it is also very much about how it feels to be alive right now. Jenny Offill perfectly captures the absurdities and ironies of our moment.”
            —Dana Spiotta
 

Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-27
Scenes from a marriage, sometimes lyrical, sometimes philosophically rich, sometimes just puzzling. 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. The story is most European, too; says the narrator, "I spent my afternoons in a city park, pretending to read Horace. At dusk, people streamed out of the Métro and into the street. In Paris, even the subways are required to be beautiful." Well, oui. The principal character is "the wife," nameless but not faceless, who enters into a relationship and then marriage with all the brave hope attendant in the enterprise. Offill (Last Things, 1999, etc.) is fond of pointed apothegms ("Life equals structure plus activity") and reflections in the place of actual action, but as the story progresses, it's clear that events test that hope--to say nothing of hubby's refusal at first to pull down a decent salary, so the young family finds itself "running low on money for diapers and beer and potato chips." Material conditions improve, but that hope gets whittled away further with the years, leading to moments worthy of a postmodern version of Diary of a Mad Housewife: "The wife is reading Civilization and Its Discontents, but she keeps getting lost in the index." The fragmented story, true though it may be to our splintered, too busy lives, is sometimes hard to follow, and at times, the writing is precious, even if we're always pulled back into gritty reality: "I reach my hand into the murky water, fiddle with the drain. When I pull it back out, my hand is scummed with grease." There are moments of literary experimentation worthy of Virginia Woolf here, but in the end, this reads more like notes for a novel than a novel itself.
Library Journal
11/01/2013
The book's title refers to the return address used by both husband and wife on letters they wrote to each other while dating. This slim novel continually speculates on the marriage of our unnamed protagonist, through all its vagaries, including the husband's affair with a much younger woman. Everyday events are always related from the wife's point of view. She is a writing instructor at a college in New York City and is also helping to write a book for a "would-be astronaut" about space travel. As the woman moves through the phases of her eagerly anticipated marriage to an Ohio-born musician, from its beginning through motherhood and more, the reader easily empathizes with her struggles and frustrations. The narrative changes direction near the end, when our heroine attempts to keep her soul together along with her marriage and family. VERDICT This work reads very quickly, and a second read is recommended. Offill's lean prose and the addition of astute quotations prevent the text from becoming just one more story of an infidelity. The author's debut, Last Things, was a Los Angeles Times First Book Award finalist, noted by the New York Times; here, her writing is exquisitely honed and vibrant. This would be an enlightened choice for a reading group. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH
The Barnes & Noble Review

Not every great book comes across as one when you go to summarize it. Take Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, which I would call a great book. It has the kind of plot that, on paper, sounds regrettably banal: a woman writer, living a materially comfortable life in Brooklyn, struggles through a familiar sort of personal, professional, and even spiritual crisis. She is failing to write a second novel, she has a child whom she loves but also finds a burden, and the household suffers from bedbugs. All the while, the narrator's relationship with her husband crumbles from the kind of interior romantic neglect that seems to afflict early parenthood.

There are several elements in there that set Offill's book up against current literary tastes. For one thing — don't repeat this anywhere you might be overheard in Brooklyn — not everyone has the same bottomless interest in the travails of the writing life that writers do. For another, stories of the materially comfortable have had trouble lately moving beyond their narrow set. Think of the bad rap a book like Offill's can get: so Eat, Pray, Love, so "privileged," so "narcissistic."

But Offill manages to rise to the challenge, largely through using an inventive form. Her novel is not quite recognizable as a novel and yet not quite a book of aphorisms, either. There are forty-six chapters, each broken up into at least ten short, epigrammatic paragraphs. Forgive me for all the quoting I'm about to do, but the effect is quite hard to describe in secondary terms:

And that phrase — "sleeping like a baby." Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.
A paragraph like that just hangs there, like a lone planet in space, in the narrative. In fact planets, astronauts, and stars are also subjects the narrator of this fragmentary story is very interested in:
My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles. This is the mnemonic they give her to remember the order of the planets.
But she's not primarily focused on celestial bodies as a schoolroom subject. Rather, it's the way staring at the stars gets tangled up with human love, a subject the speaker is researching for the book she is ghostwriting. She comes across the appropriately star-crossed lovers involved in the Voyager space probe:
Ann Druyan was engaged to marry Timothy Ferriss while they were working on the Voyager project with Carl Sagan and his wife, Linda. Then Carl and Ann decided to get married. The news took awhile to reach Linda and Timothy. Or so my intern says. But when Ann Druyan tells the story, that part is missing, like a record that skips.
You can play this kind of free-associative game throughout the book, finding paragraphs that link up to others via theme or content or even just pronoun. You feel like a child connecting dots, and it is hard not to be pleased by the intricacies of the resulting spiderweb. I found myself particularly interested by the way the speaker, as she goes through her crisis, gets more and more dissociated from what she's writing. At the beginning of Dept. of Speculation she's writing in the first person; halfway through, she's started writing in a dissociated third person, and it is a matter of suspense whether the "I" will come back before the book's end.

This intricate structure is a pleasure to experience in the moment, like a very good piece of lace. Some paragraphs feel like epiphanies; others just good jokes. What it doesn't leave behind, however, is the sense of weight you'd like to attach to a novel that, frog-like, manages to hop elegantly from Kafka to Eliot, from Frederick Cook to Russian astronauts. The problem is that it only hops; there are moments when, admiring the way the narrator has of putting things, you want her to linger, tell you more stories.

This broken-up, epigrammatic form has been used by other novelists. Renata Adler is one, and Offill's book bears certain echoes of Adler's Speedboat and Pitch Dark, at least thematically, in its record of the frustrations of intelligence in a world that doesn't particularly value intelligence. But Offill's narrator is too playful by half; when she abandons a paragraph and turns to another subject, it feels that it's happened not because she's owned the subject but because she somehow can't bear to stop for a minute. It is often more like a brief note-to-self than unforgettable aphorism.

Still, the book is very beautiful and funny and wise. To read it feels like borrowing the notebooks of a very good friend who is on the verge of becoming a very great writer but who, for reasons beyond her own circumstances, just can't find the time. The only thing you want from her is to stay longer and talk more, so you'll better understand what she's trying to tell you. And drawing such a character is pretty grand, as far as literary achievements go.

Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and erstwhile lawyer whose writing has appeared at The New Yorker, Slate, The Nation, and The Awl.

Reviewer: Michelle Dean

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385350815
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 61,818
  • Product dimensions: 4.70 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, which was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times and was a finalist for the L.A. Times First Book Award. She is the coeditor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of essays, The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything. Her children’s books include 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed, and Sparky. She teaches in the writing programs at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.

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Read an Excerpt

There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.

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.

Blue jays spend every Friday with the devil, the old lady at the park told me.

“You need to get out of that stupid city,” my sister said. “Get some fresh air.” Four years ago, she and her husband left. They moved to Pennsylvania to an old ramshackle house on the Delaware River. Last spring, she came to visit me with her kids. We went to the park; we went to the zoo; we went to the planetarium. But still they hated it. Why is everyone yelling here?

*    
•     *

He is famously kind, my husband. Always sending money to those afflicted with obscure diseases or shoveling the walk of the crazy neighbor or helloing the fat girl at Rite Aid. He’s from Ohio. This means he never forgets to thank the bus driver or pushes in front at the baggage claim. Nor does he keep a list of those who infuriate him on a given day. People mean well. That is what he believes. How then is he married to me? I hate often and easily. I hate, for example, people who sit with their legs splayed. People who claim to give 110 percent. People who call themselves “comfortable” when what they mean is decadently rich. You’re so judgmental, my shrink tells me, and I cry all the way home, thinking of it.

Later, I am talking on the phone to my sister. I walk outside with the baby on my shoulders. She reaches out, puts something in her mouth, and chokes on it. “Hold her upside down!” my sister yells. “Whack her hard on the back!” And I do until the leaf, green, still beautiful, comes out in my hand.

I develop an abiding interest in emergency precautions. I try to enlist my husband’s help in this. I ask him to carry a pocketknife and a small flashlight in his backpack. Ideally, I’d like him to have one of those smoke hoods that doubles as a parachute. (If you are rich and scared enough you can buy one of these, I have read.) He thinks I have a morbid imagination. Nothing’s going to happen, he says. But I want him to make promises. I want him to promise that if something happens he won’t try to save people, that he’ll just get home as fast as he can. He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it. Leave behind the office girl and the old lady and the fat man wheezing on the stairs. Come home, I tell him. Save her.

A few days later the baby sees the garden hose come on and we hear her laughing.

All my life now appears to be one happy moment
. This is what the first man in space said.

Later, when it’s time to go to bed, she puts both legs in one side of her footy pajamas and slyly waits for us to notice.

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 dance with the baby every night now, spinning her round and round the kitchen. Dizzying, this happiness.

She becomes obsessed with balls. She can spot a ball-shaped object at one hundred paces.Ball, she calls the moon. BallBall. On nights when it is obscured by clouds, she points angrily at the darkness.

My husband gets a new job, scoring sound tracks for commercials. The pay is better. It has benefits. How is it, people ask. “Not bad,” he says with a shrug. “Only vaguely soul-crushing.”

She learns to walk. We decide to have a party to show off how persony she has become. For days beforehand, she asks me over and over, “Party now? Party now?” On the night of the festivities, I pull her wispy hair up into a ponytail. “She looks like a girl,” my husband says. He seems amazed. An hour later, the guests stream in. She weaves her way in and out of them for five minutes, then tugs on my sleeve. “No more party!” she says. “Party done! Party done!”

Her favorite book is about firemen. When she sees the picture, she will mime ringing the bell and sliding down the pole. Clang, clang, clang goes the fire engine bell. The men are on their way!

My husband reads the book to her every night, including very very slowly the entire copyright page.

Sometimes she plays a game now where she scatters her stuffed animals all over the living room. “Babies, babies,” she mutters darkly as she covers them with white napkins. “Civil War Battlefield,” we call it.

One day she runs down the block by herself. I am terrified she’ll forget to stop at the end. “Stop!” I scream at her. “Stop! Stop!”

“Just keep her alive until she’s eighteen,” my sister says. My sister has two daredevil boys, fraternal twins. She lives in the country but is always threatening to move to England. Her husband is British. He would like to solve all their problems with boarding school and compulsory backgammon. He has never liked it here. Weak-minded, he calls Americans. To make him happy, my sister serves boiled meat for dinner and makes the peas mushy.

•    
•     *

People keep flirting with the wife. Has this been happening all along and she never noticed? Or is it new? She’s like a taxi whose light just went on. All these men standing in the street, waving her over.

She falls in love with a friend. She falls in love with a student. She falls in love with the bodega man. He hands her back her change so gently.

Floating, yes, floating away. How can he sleep? Doesn’t he feel her levitating?

I will leave you, my love. Already I am going. Already I watch you speaking as if from a great height. Already the feel of your hand on my hand, of your lips on my lips, is only curious. It is decided then. The stars are accelerating. I half remember a sky could look like this. I saw it once when she was born. I saw it once when I got sick. I thought you’d have to die before I saw it again. I thought one of us would have to die. But look, here it is! Who will help me? Who can help me? Rilke? Rilke! If you’re listening, come quickly. Lash me to this bed! Bind me to this earthly body! If you hear this, come now! I am untethering. Who can hold me?

What John Berryman said: Goodbye, sir, & fare well. You’re in the clear.

These bits of poetry that stick to her like burrs.

Lately, the wife has been thinking about God, in whom the husband no longer believes. The wife has an idea to meet her ex-boyfriend at the park. Maybe they could talk about God. Then make out. Then talk about God again.

She tells the yoga teacher that she is trying to be honorable. Honorable! Such an old-fashioned word, she thinks. Ridiculous, ridiculous.

“Yes, be honorable,” the yoga teacher says.

Whenever the wife wants to do drugs, she thinks about Sartre. One bad trip and then a giant lobster followed him around for the rest of his days.

Also she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friend calls it.

So she invents allergies to explain her red eyes and migraines to explain the blinked-back look of pain. One day, coming out of their building, she staggers a little from the exhaustion of all of it. Her elderly neighbor comes over, touches her sleeve. “Are you okay, dear?” he asks. Carefully, politely, she shakes him off of her.

Sometimes when the wife is trying to do positions, the yoga teacher will single her out for instruction. The wife can’t help but notice that she never has to correct other students in this particular way.

Do not instruct the head! The head is not being instructed!

How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. 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.

*    
•     *

The undergrads get the suicide jokes, but the ones about divorce go right over their heads.

You’re a truth bomb, a cute guy said to her once at a party. Before excusing himself to go flirt with someone else.

Q. Why couldn’t the Buddhist vacuum in corners?
A. Because she had no attachments.

The wife is advised to read a horribly titled adultery book. She takes the subway three neighborhoods away to buy it. The whole experience of reading it makes her feel compromised, and she hides it around the house with the fervor another might use to hide a gun or a kilo of heroin. In the book, he is referred to as the participating partner and she as the hurt one. There are many other icky things, but there is one thing in the book that makes her laugh out loud. It is in a footnote about the way different cultures handle repairing a marriage after an affair.

In America, the participating partner is likely to spend an average of 1,000 hours processing the incident with the hurt partner. This cannot be rushed.

When she reads this, the wife feels very very sorry for the husband.

Who is only about 515 hours in.

•    
•     *

The weather is theater here. They watch it through the window from their bed.

What Singer said: I wonder what these people thought thousands of years ago of these sparks they saw when they took off their woolen clothes?

The husband feeds the stove so she can stay in bed. He goes outside to get more wood. The sky looks like snow, he says.
Saint Anthony was said to suffer from a crippling despair. When he prayed to be freed from it, he was told that any physical task done in the proper spirit would bring him deliverance.

At dinner, the wife watches the husband as he peels an apple for the daughter in a perfect spiral. Later, when she is grading papers, she comes across a student’s story with the same image in it. The father and daughter, the apple, the Swiss Army knife. Uncanny really. Beautifully written. She checks for a name, but there is nothing. Lia, she thinks. It must be Lia. She goes outside to read it to the husband. “I wrote that,” he says. “I slipped it into your papers to see if you would notice.”

The Zen master Ikkyu was once asked to write a distillation of the highest wisdom. He wrote only one word: Attention.
          The visitor was displeased. “Is that all?”
          So Ikkyu obliged him. Two words now.
          Attention. Attention.

Sometimes the wife still watches him sleep. Sometimes she still strokes his hair in the middle of the night and half asleep he turns to her.

Their daughter runs through the woods now, her face painted like an Indian.

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Reading Group Guide

1. This novel is written in a fragmentary, elliptical style. Why do you think it is structured this way? 

2. How would the story change if it were told in a more straightforward fashion?

3. The epigraph for the novel is a quote from Socrates: “Speculators on the universe are . . . no better than madmen.” Where else in the book does the narrator talk about madness?

4. Is this a book about loneliness?

5. Have you ever known an art monster? Have you ever been one? 

6. On pages 43 and 44, the narrator includes a “Personality Questionnaire.”  What phobias or fears would you include if you wrote your own?

7. The narrator says, “I would give it up for her . . . but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she was eighteen.” What do you make of this passage? 

8. What does it mean to throw off ambition “like an expensive coat that no longer fits?”

9. When the narrator’s sister tells her, “You have a kid-glove marriage” (page 81), does the narrator agree?

10. Why does the POV change midway through the book? Why does she become “the wife” and he, “the husband”?

11. What reaction did you have to the soscaredsoscaredsoscaredsoscaredsoscared chapter? 

12. If someone asked you, “When were you the happiest?” what would you say? Would you say the same thing no matter who asked you?

13. The narrator says at one point, “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.” Does this seem true to you?

14. Why does the narrator want to meet the girl? Why is this section framed as if it is a student paper she is grading?

15. The wife says “(So ask the birds at least. Ask the fucking birds.)” Who is she speaking to? Why is this placed in parentheses as if it is an offhand comment?

16. Chapter 46—the last chapter in the novel—switches the point of view of first person plural, “We.” Why do you think this change is made?

17. Is this a happy ending?  Do you want it to be?  

18. Discuss what matters most to you. 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 1, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Unique, choppy, straight-from-the-hip, honest: these are the wor

    Unique, choppy, straight-from-the-hip, honest: these are the words that come to mind when I think about Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Made up of 46 chapters this book covers the inner workings of a married wife and mother. Sometimes just random thoughts cover the pages and I had to laugh as I think about the times when I myself, think about such things and my mouth sprouts these random thoughts out loud and individuals within range, look at me quizzical as if I have just landed on the planet. So why should I be surprised at the thoughts that end up inside this book. Some of her topics are funny and no subject is off-limit as she tells you everything that she is thinking about. Those random thoughts are impulsive and leap across a variety of subjects. These ramblings include topics such as her childhood, things that she has read, individuals she has talked to, her current life, and her family. While some of these things I find humorous and entertaining, some of them, I also found quirky. I came upon some that I felt were flat and unfinished. I kept waiting for them to be completed, to be picked up at another time or on another page as I wanted more. I wanted to see if I was on the right page as the writer. I really had a hard time with these ramblings that were not completed. That being said, I think after reading this book, I just might start writing down my own ramblings instead of opening my mouth every time something “unique” comes into my head, I just might have the workings of a book myself. Thank you NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for me to review.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 14, 2014

    A beautiful, biting, and oftentimes melancholic look at the dome

    A beautiful, biting, and oftentimes melancholic look at the domestication of the art monster. Offill provides a penetrating look into the life of creative ambition under fire from domestic responsibility. Though written in a series of short form pieces (think Lydia Davis), the novel provides a unified emotional experience thanks to Offill's eye for painfully precise detail and the relentless awareness she brings to her contemporary (and recognizable) struggle. Recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 26, 2014

    Confusing

    Just reading the four page sample was enough of this. No reason to buy the whole thing if it's all so scattered and senseless.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2014

    A surprise and a joy. Brilliant, funny, heart-wrenching. Remin

    A surprise and a joy. Brilliant, funny, heart-wrenching. Reminds me, in the best possible way, of Lydia Davis. My favorite book of the year so far.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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