Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is the story of a woman who meets a man, falls in love, has a baby, struggles to find her way as a writer, nearly falls apart when her husband has an affair, and moves from Brooklyn to rural Pennsylvania. But that facile description of a rather mundane "plot" misrepresents the book entirely, as it is unlike any other novel I've read. It is presented in a series of brief reflections, quotations, and anecdotes told from the perspective of the woman. A Lebanese proverb, an Einstein or Simone Weil quote, an anecdote about Carl Sagan's divorce, and a description of notes the woman writes on the papers of her students are interspersed with descriptions of her family life, the bedbug infestation in their apartment, her love for her daughter, and her own insecurities.

Until the revelation of her husband's affair, the reflections are written in the first person. Then, when she learns her husband has betrayed her, the narration switches to the third person ("the wife"); this change, combined with a clear downward spiraling in the woman's mental state, makes the second half of the book rather harrowing--and yet, it is also something of a tribute to marriage and married love.

Offill has taken an array of seemingly unrelated material and woven it into an engaging book--one that actually makes me want to read it again to see whether the diverse pieces reveal more with a second perusal. If you prefer a novel with a traditional narrative structure, Dept. of Speculation is probably not for you, but if you like a little experimentation, then I highly recommend it.

Favorite passages
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.

He is ten years younger than we are, alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending within us. "You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones," someone says after the boy who is pure of heart leaves.

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)

The adultery book says to say affirmations of some sort each day, about yourself or your marriage. The wife doesn't like the ones that are suggested, so she makes up her own.
Nerves of Steel
No favors for fuckers

(Hmmm. I have chosen some rather dark quotes--but really, the book is not as downbeat as these quotes might suggest.)

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