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In the beginning, it was easy to imagine their future. They were young and giddy, sure of themselves and of their love for each other. “Dept. of Speculation” was their code name for all the thrilling uncertainties that lay ahead. Then they got married, had a child and navigated the familiar calamities of family life—a colicky baby, a faltering relationship, stalled ambitions.
When their marriage reaches a sudden breaking point, the wife tries to retrace the steps that have led them to this place, invoking everything from Kafka to the Stoics to doomed Russian cosmonauts as she analyzes what is lost and what remains. In language that shimmers with rage and longing and wit, Offill has created a brilliantly suspenseful love story—a novel to read in one sitting, even as its piercing meditations linger long after the last page.
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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. Ball. Ball. 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.
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.
Excerpted from "Dept. of Speculation"
Copyright © 2014 Jenny Offill.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, a startlingly incisive, sharply funny, beautifully written examination of marriage, motherhood, and fulfillment.
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.