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Dept. of Speculation

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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.

180 pages, Paperback

First published January 28, 2014

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About the author

Jenny Offill is an American author born in Massachusetts. Her first novel Last Things was published in 1999 was a New York Times Notable book and a finalist for the L.A Times First Book Award.

She is also the co-editor with Elissa Schappell of two anthologies of essays and the author of several children's books She teaches in the MFA programs at Brooklyn College, Columbia University and Queens University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,801 reviews
Profile Image for Guille.
741 reviews1,446 followers
June 24, 2021
Me ha gustado mucho, mucho. Me ha tocado la fibra. Me ha conmovido la tristeza, el cansancio y la desilusión que desprenden estos destellos de pensamientos, estas breves notas sobre la sucesión de pequeños momentos, con frecuencia inconexos, y los grandes espacios que se crean en torno a ellos, de una mujer enfrentada a su trabajo, a su matrimonio, a su maternidad, a la escritura de su segunda novela, a sus amigos, al abandono, a la posible locura y a la depresión cierta.

Una mujer que se entrevista a sí misma: “¿Qué quieres? No lo sé. ¿Qué quieres? No lo sé. ¿Dónde podría estar el problema? Déjame en paz.” Una mujer culta, elegante en su forma de expresarse, perspicaz en la elección de los comentarios y las escenas con los que se explica y nos explica, inteligente en la ligazón que establece entre ellos y dotada de un poderoso poder de sugestión y de comunicación de situaciones y sentimientos.

Me ha gustado la sobriedad, la simplicidad, la ternura y la rabia, la justa distancia, la concreción, la sutileza, la sinceridad, el humor, la importancia del detalle, y hasta el cripticismo que caracteriza en ocasiones sus pensamientos, propio de alguien que recuerda y reflexiona sobre su vida con sus particularísimas claves. Y me ha gustado el desconsuelo sin dramatismos excesivos con el que compara su vida con aquellas ilusiones que, como un juego, plasmaron ella y su marido en aquellas cartas que se enviaban con un remitente invariable: Departamento de especulaciones.

Sí, me ha gustado mucho, mucho el conjunto que así se dibuja, la forma en que esas mil piezas acaban ajustando hasta conformar una forma distinta y atractiva de contar lo tantas veces contado acerca de un matrimonio fallido.
“Mi marido es universalmente conocido por su bondad. Siempre está enviando dinero a los afligidos por misteriosas enfermedades, o limpiando el camino de entrada del vecino loco, o saludando efusivo a la chica gorda de Rite Aid. Es de Ohio. Eso significa que nunca se olvida de darle las gracias al conductor del autobús o que nunca empuja a quien espera delante de él en la recogida de equipajes. Tampoco lleva una lista de toda la gente que lo ha enfurecido en un mismo día. La gente tiene buenas intenciones: eso es lo que cree. Pero entonces, ¿cómo es posible que se haya casado conmigo? Porque yo odio mucho y con gran facilidad. Odio, por ejemplo, a los que se sientan con las piernas separadas. A los que dicen que rinden al ciento diez por ciento. A la gente que se define como “desahogada” cuando en realidad es vergonzosamente rica. Juzga usted demasiado, me dice mi psiquiatra, y lloro durante todo el camino de vuelta a casa, mientras le doy vueltas a eso.”
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
784 reviews5,392 followers
April 22, 2015
If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.

John Berryman once wrote ‘let all flowers wither like a party.’ Nothing lasts, even the things we love most and nurture and care for must pass, but this is not cause for sadness but merely a reason to look into each moment and let ourselves feel the emotion coursing through them. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, writer of the marvelous children’s book (and staple of my daughter’s bedtime routine) Sparky!, delivers an emotionally charged account of adulthood across marriage, childrearing, and the pains of infidelity that opens wide each moment to explore the blood of life within. Reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Offill offers brief snippets of life-as-lived that build a beautiful collage of the narrator’s existence. Sprinkled with scientific facts, philosophical quandaries and literary quotes, Offill does well by avoiding a straightforward surface telling of story in Dept. of Speculation that instead progresses through abstract connections to better occupy the mind and soul of her narrator; a wonderful approach that unfortunately feels a bit stale and preoccupied with accessibility and emotion rather than depth and beauty.

There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 52 weeks in a year, and X years in a life. Solve for X.

Dept. of Speculation is quite a charming little novel, full of great spirit and humor. It feels very alive, very close and always tugging the heart strings. I particularly enjoyed the moments involving the baby daughter and the wonderment watching all her eccentricities as she begins to age and the way Offill constructs and immediacy to this unique window into the world around us. The style keeps us locked within the narrator and all her own quirks, learning to empathize and understand her through examples of life which keeps us connected when the bottom drops out for her after her husband’s infidelity. There is a sudden shift from the ‘I’ to the third-person— ‘the wife’ and ‘the husband’—which pulls the reader from such closeness to a colder impersonal perspective as she too finds herself on the outside of her own life. Subtlety and the unspoken meanings inherent in technique are of the many positive techniques employed by Offill that help the novel shimmer. Rarely is anything ever direct and it is typically through abstract association that the reader is able to deduce the truth behind the events that transpire. Even then the story is never fully formed and the readers imagination must commingle with the narrator’s inward observations to flesh out the story through a cooperative effort that further connects the reader to the character. The husband’s affair is never plainly stated at first, and it is the story of Carl Sagan leaving his wife for Ann Druyan while working on the Voyager Golden Record that supplies the context to be assumed when the husband and wife reach a breaking point¹ Other things are not so suble, such as the bedbug infestation in the couples first apartment being a foreshadowing of parasites in the marriage bed, but these metaphors still work wonderfully.

The style, with the quick snippets of life interspersed with facts and quotes, reads like David Markson-lite. While the style does help investigate the character from an abstract perspective that feels very intimate, it also feels as if it is used more for the sake of seeming experimental than actually being experimental. Speculation toys with po-mo techniques without really being po-mo itself (the novel is rather straight-forward despite the impression of not being so), and seems to be akin to the way David Mitchell takes more popular fiction plots and bridges them towards a more literary bent. Which isn’t a complaint necessarily, more an observation that the style is more flashy than substantial and has been done many times before and done better. Perhaps if the book didn’t continuously feel like it was focused more on plot (and pushing the plot forward with a bit too heavy of a hand) than the philosophical ideas presented. The quotes and facts seem more there for charm and quirkiness than to provide actual depth; the factoids used are like the sort of things you read on a cereal box, fun and thought-provoking, but not very functional. Offill seems to recognize this and keeps things fun and provides a few metafictional aspects of the character seemingly writing this story from scraps of paper she scrawls in times of stress² She also attempts to keep the story feeling relatable through very modern and non-affected writing that often has the feel of reading someones Facebook statuses. They are full of snarky charm, cursing, pop-culture phrases and other ‘normal-person in the real world’ colloquialisms. At times it made me wish she could spin a better phrase that would cut to the core, but it was used consistently and helped create a believable character.

She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue.

Dept of Speculation is a quick read that takes the reader by the heart through the narrator’s adulthood of trials and tribulations. While it is not quite the work of brilliance than many have championed it, the book is also nowhere near as bad as its detractors have claimed and it is still a powerful book despite a few minor grievances. Offill does well to pull at the heart strings, though this does often seem more a novel that forces you to feel the emotion rather than let the emotion rise up naturally. The style is rather engaging and allows for a fun and insightful look into the character and her world, but feels stale but Offill covers this staleness up with rich, warm, emotional butter to still pull off a palatable treat of fiction.

'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.'

¹ There is an irony that the narrator finds Carl and Ann’s story to be romantic despite knowing it involved a double infidelity yet cannot apply the same perspective towards her husband’s affair. ‘The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)’ Perhaps this also comments on the shift from first- to third-person as she sees an affair is easier to gloss over from the outside.

² Perhaps I had read both Adler’s Speedboat and Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd too soon before this one and Speculation fades from the comparison. However, this book shares many key aspects of both, such as the scrap writing or being friends with a philosopher like the narrator in Faces. Which is a problem with this book, it just feels like the heartfelt moments of many other books all blended into one without taking any of these elements into a fresh direction or perspective.
Profile Image for Stephen.
99 reviews81 followers
September 20, 2014
The subject of this book is the same as Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment - the husband strays - yet the writing couldn't have been handled more differently.

To write like Ferrante you need a grasp of literature.
To write like Offill you need an American education and access to the internet.

Ferrante wears her education lightly - there are little, if any references to great writers.
Offill doesn't let you forget who she's in touch with.

Offill talks a lot about art.
Ferrante asks you to judge whether she's succeeding at it.

Ferrante's bad behavior is understandable, given the context.
Offill's bad behavior is without context, expecting you to take it on faith.

Ferrante's narrator is in contact with people who are strangers.
There are no people outside of Offill's privileged circle - the few that get a mention are dispatched in a line or two.

Offill's use of profanity is meant to show that we're not dealing with a total square. "Don't cook, don't fuck, what do you do?"
Ferrante's use of profanity comes with a threat of real violence.

Ferrante embeds her irony in the spaces of a paragraph, enriching the story with this bedrock.
Offill is not unlike most of our generation - if you cannot express irony in the snappy one-liner it's nowhere to be found.

Offill speaks honestly to be understood.
Ferrante speaks honestly because the truth of what happened is important.

Offill's anger knows the law will eventually back her up - things just aren't working out right now. That's the source of her humor, or why she is so "funny", according to the blurbs.
Ferrante's anger knows that there's no safety net for these intermittences of the heart.

Offill believes that Zen Buddhism is a philosophy about achieving one's peace of mind.
Ferrante understands that Zen is a place in Japan - or put it this way, an ability to accept anything that comes your way, including death.

A fragment in Ferrante's mind are the spaces that can never be filled.
A fragment in Offill's mind are places awaiting their facts - never to be connected, of course, that would be too ironical.

Ferrante understands that sympathy is as fickle as a husband.
Offill hopes the husband will eventually come around.

To sympathize with Ferrante is to understand something important about women's consciousness.
To sympathize with Offill is to leave that part out of the equation.

Offill writes like she'll be admired once her book comes out.
Ferrante writes like the only thing that can admire you is time.
Profile Image for Swrp.
561 reviews108 followers
August 11, 2020
"But what if I`m special? What if I`m in the minority?"

As stated in the blurb I did not find this book to be a "portrait of marriage", but instead it was more like being in someone's mind (and heart) and getting an unfiltered, raw and original account of everything being thought of!

Each chapter, in fact even most of the paragraphs within the chapters, in Dept. of Speculation are unrelated and kind of disjointed. And, this way of narration made this book interesting!
In some, God is portrayed as a father, in others, as a mother.
When God is a father, he is said to be elsewhere.
When God is a mother, she is said to be everywhere.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,179 reviews9,240 followers
September 26, 2015
There are so many novels which are really memoirs but are given to us as novels because memoirs are like “oh, what makes you think your life is so interesting I might want to read about it?” and novels are “yay! A new novel!”

I will bet one thousand of my British pounds

that Jenny Offill really did have a bug infestation in her apartment and really did have a daughter who broke both her wrists. (Novels I read recently which are really also memoirs are : A Question of Upbringing, The Wallcreeper, The Adventures of Augie March, The Naked and the Dead, Voyage in the Dark… the list could go on and on.)

It’s true that calling your memoir a novel allows you to have a lot more fun with the facts, as in, you don’t have to stick to them. And some sharp arts reporter won’t be able to Frey you alive.

I read that JO’s agent said “this isn’t a novel, it’s an x-ray of a novel”. Yes, that’s right! The main characters have no names and all the main events have to be inferred, but that’s not hard as it’s a banal tale of adultery, which is why JO did it this way.

It’s written in teeny paragraphs, some of which are quotations from famous brainiacs of the past. And the mother is called The Mother and the baby is called The Baby. Reviewers like its brilliant originality but we have seen these elements before, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson (1988) and in a long and great story by Lorrie Moore called “People Like That are the Only People Here”. And maybe elsewhere too, heck, I ain’t read everything. I could prove this to you by means of quotations but I don't mean to be mean.

It was very sad. It was full of stuff like this:

The wife sits in the backyard with binoculars. She is trying to learn about the birds. She has seen robins and sparrows and wrens. A green-throated hummingbird. She wants to know the name of the black bird with the red wings. She looks it up. It is a red-winged blackbird.

That reminded me of the flocks of sparrows which used to descend in the back garden of my childhood when we used to throw out breadcrumbs for them. The common house sparrow. Nottingham was full of them, you never gave them a thought, they were just there. Now, you don’t see a single one from January to December. I don’t know why. Was it something we said?

Profile Image for Carol.
537 reviews53 followers
March 16, 2014

The plot depiction is disjointed and resembles the ramblings of a bi-polar patient off his/her meds. Typically it sounds like the ramblings of a person in couples' therapy when only one partner shows up. I would like to talk about the redeeming graces of this novelette, but I could find none, It was like picking up someone's private daily journal -- and finding that it's really only meaningful to the person writing it. Unfortunately, this material just did not engage me. (The text that explains the origin of the title truly disappointed.)
Profile Image for Idarah.
464 reviews49 followers
February 4, 2015
Indulging in my love of audio books has become more challenging since I quit my job, and no longer have a two and a half hour commute to get lost in a dreamy book. I've taken to having a special ME day once a week. The ritual revolves around my complicated and needy hair. The process of pre-shampooing, washing, deep conditioning, detangling, and finally braiding my hair into tiny segments occupies about 3-4 hours sometimes. I used to put it off until I absolutely had a knotted mess on my hands. I decided to use this time to get back into my audio book routine. It's helped tremendously! I enjoy my day, get some reading in, and if the book is especially good, I'll find other things I need to tweak just to keep listening, like a manicure and/or pedicure, or even attending to my larger than life eyebrows.

This short little book consumed my whole morning today. Even late into tonight, I'm still pondering why I loved it so much. The lame comeback? This stuff is real. Reminds me of why I love Bergman films, especially the tortourous Scenes From a Marriage. It's real. Focusing on the protagonist's life before marriage, after marriage, motherhood, and the complications from imperfect relationships, I was especially drawn to the "wife's" constant choice of family over career. Her inner doubts about being a good wife, mom, sister, and friend touched me deeply. I fell in love with her character and just wanted to extend a huge hug. "You're not alone and you can and will get through this," kept running through my mind as I pulled my comb through my fastidious curls.

Summation: read this book, then let's talk.
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews636 followers
May 23, 2017
Ten Reasons Why You Should Read This Extraordinary Book

10. Because it has one of the coolest back-cover endorsements (by Michael Cunningham) you will ever see.

9. Because by reading you will challenge this 1896 advice to wives, quoted in the book:
The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart, it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.
8. Because at 160 pages, it is compact, provocative, healing, and lethal.

7. Because the narrator is smart, funny, offbeat, and very real, despite not being given a name.

6. Because the tiny paragraphs of which it is composed—points to ponder, fragments of feeling—are far more hit than miss, and their apparent randomness conceals a cumulative power that will take you by surprise.

5. Because you will learn more than you have ever forgotten about the history of space exploration (not to mention the long-distance vision of antelopes and attempts to photograph the human soul), but the space that Offill herself explores is inside her.

4. Because it perfectly captures the exasperation, tedium, and unbounded joy of being at home with a new baby.

3. Because, sneaking upon you unawares, it tells the inside story of an ordinary good marriage, the shock of adultery, and the terrible period afterwards when everything hangs in the balance.

2. Because it contains and exemplifies this quotation from Rilke:
Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.
1. Because, when all is said and done, it is just so heartbreakingly beautiful.
Profile Image for Katie.
264 reviews333 followers
September 4, 2016
Essentially, Offill carries out a kind of emotional autopsy on a young woman trying to divide her energies between bringing up a young child and keeping a husband happy without sacrificing her commitment to succeeding as a writer.

The original format of this novel – it’s written as a kind of literary scrapbook of musings, quotes and insights - reminded me at times of Fellini’s brilliant film about the fount of inspiration, 8 ½. Like the film director in Fellini’s film, Offill’s writer is bereft of inspiration, which sets her on an odyssey to sift through the rubble of her past in search of nuggets of insight.

One of the many brilliant vignettes is her discovery that her baby who rarely stops crying finds solace under very bright fluorescent lights. This means she takes him to the corner store every day and just idles away inside for as long as possible without drawing too much attention to herself. It’s such a brilliant dramatization of how much time motherhood demands you waste! The early years of motherhood are not an uninterrupted crooning of delight. But she does the delight too, and does it very well. The same goes for her cheating husband – “The thing is this: Even if the husband leaves her in this awful craven way, she will still have to count it as a miracle, all of those happy years she spent with him.” She achieves the clarity of inspiration – she can see every event from all sides.

It loses a star for me because I began to feel it lost momentum towards the end. The novel deserved a more daring and satisfactory denouement. To use an Olympic simile it came charging out of the blocks but cramped up a bit in the final lap.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,107 reviews1,829 followers
January 6, 2014
“She thinks before she acts. Or more properly she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw not a virtue.”

Dept. Of Speculation is a short novel of a marriage. It's told in 46 chapters composed of short paragraphs and almost aphoristic lines and quotes in 160 compact pages. The narrator, the Wife, goes from being a young woman who considers being an Art Monster, a person who lives solely for the creation of their art, to a wife and a mother. It's set mostly in Brooklyn, but that shouldn't be held against it. It's not one of those Park Slope mommy books that seem to be a thing lately.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I found much of the writing to be great, and the individual lines and paragraphs to be interesting, sometimes in that fleeting kind of, 'you are saying something exactly that I've thought about before' kind of way, sort of in a less gloom filled way that reading E.M. Cioran can be. But, I had a hard time feeling involved in the story itself, the characters, the Wife, the Husband the Daughter, and the other nameless characters never felt like more than wisps of ideas.

“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.”
Profile Image for christa.
745 reviews273 followers
February 9, 2020
True confession: I will probably never press a copy of Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” into anyone’s hot little hands. It doesn’t matter anyway. The thing landed on, like, every Best Of 2014 list in the universe, probably even half-assedly scribbled onto fast food napkins. But here’s the thing: I didn’t just love this book, I fucking loved it. I felt passionate and heart-beaty about it. I touched words on pages and sighed like they were images in a yearbook or whatever. I turned my copy into origami, what with all the dog-earing. I thought these out-of-character words so many times:

“This book is absolutely gorgeous.”

Here’s the thing with book recs: Sometimes you read something and it’s great and you just generically tell your readerly-inclined friends (or internet cruisers) that it’s got your seal. Sometimes you read something and you think, “Oh my. Know who’d love this?” And you try to explain to said person that it’s crucial they read this book, like, yesterday, all while remembering that you really, seriously, freaking hate when someone tells you to read a certain book (unless they are on a preapproved list of people who understand how and what and why you read).

Here’s the gist of “Dept. of Speculation”: A woman living in Brooklyn meets a man who makes soundscapes and falls in love and they get married and make a baby. It all goes against this sort of master plan she had to become an Art Monster -- a rarity for women, she notes, but she would be a person who only thinks about art and is never burdened by the mundane. Nabakov, she points out, didn’t even fold his own umbrella.

TThere is a breach in the relationship. The man gets into it with another woman and the narrator spends a lot of time in this weird limbo of trying to figure out the status of her family. Is he in, is he out and all that.

But the story is written in these really super short paragraphs, just scraps of barely vignettes, that give just enough details to what is happening. In between are fun facts about Buddhist teachings and interactions with her sister or her friend a philosopher or memories. This is, style-wise, brilliant. The writing is super concise and the words feel like they’re more honest, worth more emotional weight. There is all this white space where who-knows-what is happening and it’s, as I’ve said, so gorgeous.

I actually had this thought while reading Offill’s book, which is like this wide-open ticking wound of a story. “I can’t recommend this to anyone because they wouldn’t appreciate it because they are not me.” (If *that* doesn’t make me sound like I carry a selfie stick …)

I’ve come through the romantic fog. I know this wasn’t written for me. But the way she writes about her baby feels so intensely personal -- in this way that those conversational “What to Expect” books promise to be, but aren’t -- that I actually felt a little embarrassed because these are my secrets.

“I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger. ‘It’s for my daughter,’ I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.”

And this:

“I would give up everything for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen. If she would lie quietly with me, if I could bury my face in her hair, yes, then yes, uncle.”

Or there were lines like this:

“The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out” which I wanted to needlepoint onto a throw pillow.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
614 reviews758 followers
October 13, 2015

There are blowsy baroque behemoths that spill the entire contents of the fridge onto your reading table (and let you do the cooking, and the clearing up afterwards too sometimes), and then there are the delicate offerings, the distilled essence from the alembic, an extract that carries, within a tiny drop, sweetness, tartness, acidity, all at once. Potent. Searing. Jewel-like droplets that set the mouth ablaze and the mind reeling.

This is sensational.

Offill dispenses with all the conventional trappings of a novel, all that telling and telling and telling, spewing out words and more words and yet more words, and offers us instead single chiselled shots, flashes, aphoristic vignettes. Poetic parenthood:
The baby's eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she'd stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she'd washed up on.

But anguished too: What do you want? I don't know. What do you want? I don't know. What seems to be the problem? Just leave me alone.
Stunned by her own fierce love for this screaming colicky creature:
Is she a good baby? People would ask me.
Well, no, I'd say.

That swirl of hair on the back of her head.
We must have taken a thousand pictures of it.

The Wife's plan to become an art monster turns into the road not taken. Of course she's angry. And helpless.
There are mice cavorting in the cupboards. Bugs. Infestation.
Everyone is lost in space.
There is a devastating change from 'I' to 'She'. And a tentative return to 'We'.
It is wistful, funny and startling.
It is motherhood, identity, and a marriage in crisis, exploded into shimmering shards. It is life.

It is how I would love to be able to write.
Profile Image for Tim.
Author 6 books232 followers
April 25, 2014
When I first pulled a copy of Renata Adler's Pitch Dark off the dollar remainder shelves at the Strand sometime in the early 90s, I was intrigued, mystified. ¿Que es esto? I was slaloming between the poles of philosophy and literature at the time and trying to get them to merge in some elegant way or at least not crash into a tree. I was grabbed there on 12th Street by how she alluded to Wittgenstein and Nabokov back-to-back, insisting that they belonged together, not to mention Scheherazade and a trapped raccoon and an affair which we see in the shadows and the wings and hear in echoes and stubborn silences. It was the first time I'd noticed a deckled edge on a book, and it seemed fitting for a thing that seemed to want to feel unpolished and shun smoothness of any sort. I went on to write my thesis on Wittgenstein and Adler, jazz improvisation and storytelling, symmetries made and broken, and other stuff that I can't remember anymore. Adler's book blew me away because it felt--in language and form alike--stripped down, yanked inside-out, exposed, nervy and raw. The words were like a row of naked defenders at a penalty kick that never quite happens, an ongoing state of uneasy vigilance itself the goal.

I bring this up now partly because Offill's writing recalls Adler's work, now celebrated (she's taken a Lazarus-like turn off the remainder shelf) in both form and tone, or maybe the better word is "pulse." Others have pointed out the connection, most notably Roxane Gay, who describes Offill's latest novel in the NYTimes Book Review as, "at times, reminiscent of Renata Adler’s 'Speedboat' with a less bitter edge." No question, Dept. of Speculation shares that quality of leaping from observation to observation, from memory to scholarly citation, anecdote to meta-anecdote, teeming with musings on marriage and motherhood, teaching, getting from point A to G, and the quiet, often hidden slapstick that can accompany each of these. There are fewer non-sequiturs in Offill, fewer head-scratching moments; she's quite easy to follow. I'm partial--pun intended, I suppose--to this form, which seems to be a counterweight to our longing for continuity. For doesn't a long, thick novel, broken only at the chapter-joints, promise us that we can sink in and immerse ourselves, that it will envelope us wholly (I'm thinking about you, two out of the three Pulitzer fiction finalists this year)? And I'll admit, I'm hardly immune to the allure of being swept away like that by the high tide in an ocean of prose.

But reading Offill reminds me of the pleasures of the staccato, the skittery, the odd and end, the pond and the puddle. Of course, the tradition of the fragment goes back long before Adler, and as a literary and epistemological phenomenon has been lauded by people like David Shields--even had its moment on the Colbert Report. The form goes back to Heraclitus at least, and his love of tension and contradiction are evident throughout Speculation, though Offill also names a bunch of other early philosophers, from Thales to the Stoics, rather than planting a stake firmly in one patch of philosophical ground. To borrow Zadie Smith's metaphor of literature as a "big tent," Offill's tent is small but somehow roomy, and bustling with entertaining company.

I'd say the book succeeds as well as it does by altering our sense of proportion, as we acclimate to its rhythms, its spaces and gaps, its refusal to step back too much and take in any grand view. There are real facts and pseudo-facts, definitions and redefinitions, jokes and inverted jokes, lists and indices, scientific précis and sampled lyrics and imagined conversations and confessions. Together these make their own tides. One of the most powerful strands in the book is that of outer space, and in particular of the Voyager missions, including the "Golden Record" of sounds assembled by Sagan and Co. to showcase humanity in all its (non-sexual and non-violent) glory to some alien version of eyes and ears. Apart from going behind the scenes and delving into the private lives and romantic entanglements of the scientists behind Voyager, reminding us how human they were all along, Offill aptly describes these missions as "messages in a bottle, but thrown into outer space rather than the ocean." As she points out, one will pass within 1.7 light-years of the red dwarf Ross 248 in a mere 40,000 years. What, in other words, could be more fragmentary than flinging this splinter of humanity into the void; yet, too, what could be more grand and tinged with hope?
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
July 19, 2017
This is an intriguing book, but quite a difficult one to assess and review. At first it seemed like an almost random stream of disconnected short paragraphs, but it soon becomes clear that the book has a core narrative that tells what would otherwise be a fairly humdrum and universal story of a failing marriage. The plot is the least important thing in this book - it is full of memorable observations and thoughts on a wide variety of subjects.

It falls loosely into two halves - the first is told from the woman's point of view, and follows the relationship through the first five years of their daughter's life. There is then a sudden switch to a more neutral third person narrator when the husband has an affair with a young colleague, and this part of the book becomes more focused with fewer digressions, but perhaps less interesting too.

Many of the individual paragraphs are very quotable and the book is a pleasure to read.
Profile Image for Melanie.
Author 6 books1,195 followers
February 6, 2014
My rating oscillates between 3 and 4 stars.
Thin slices of married life as viewed through a microscope, agitated cells of a wife's emotional life swirling on the page. A mix of memories and inner thoughts, striking moments and philosophical quotes, the whole should have risen as a symphony yet it didn't quite do that in the end for me. The book felt a little bit rushed and disjointed and coming apart at the seams.
Jenny Offill jumped ahead through the years a little abruptly at times and I often felt stuck in a game of literary hopscotch where I was supposed to "feel" strongly about events that I hadn't been given the chance to fully register.
A beautiful succession of existential states that unfortunately unraveled like a ball of yarn, never fully achieving the emotional build-up that I was aching for.
Profile Image for Jenna 🧵.
219 reviews77 followers
September 2, 2018
I want to review this book for a number of reasons, partly because it's so small and slight that I fear readers will ignore it. But, like Thomas Paine's Common Sense, its resemblance to a modest pamphlet belies the size of its punch.

This book is an excellent character study and an example of what greatness can be achieved when an author trusts her reader and thus avoids the sin of overwriting.

These days, many movies seem longer and sloppier and less craftily edited to me. Likewise, it seems like I'm reading more and more books where the author has misinterpreted "show, don't tell" to mean "tell them everything, down to the most miniscule detail." For example, in another recent, divisive, quasi-experimental book about women's depression, Hausfrau, the author's determination and need to drive home her precious, weighty, portentous themes generated writing that, to my mind, seemed incredibly overwrought and pretentious and mechanical. To me, the prose read as though the author had hooked up an iPhone to protagonist Anna's brain and we were listening to Siri droning an interminable stream of repetitive thoughts in a dreadful computer-facilitated translation from another language.

In contrast - Dept. Of Speculation is a very spare book whose concise prose attempts to capture the very human, fleeting thoughts of the troubled protagonist.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for books - from Virginia Woolf's to Zadie Smith's - that try to capture the imagistic, non-chronological way people actually think. So, without excruciatingly spelling it all out for us, author Jenny Offill helps us understand that Dept. Of Speculation's narrator-protagonist, "the Wife," is a thwarted artist who has made sacrifices in her career in order to assume the demands of marriage and motherhood. It's implied that she's dealt with some past postnatal depression, and that although she desperately loves her young daughter, her depression lingers because the personal and vocational sacrifices she's made for her family's wellbeing have, unfortunately, failed to yield a secure and happy home as hoped.

We get sketches of the family's trials, some as minute as a bedbug and some as monumental as an affair. We can infer that the protagonist may occasionally be a little bit of a difficult and anxious and self-loathing person - but no more than all of us. It's illustrated that the protagonist is intensely creative and intelligent, emotional and frustrated, and these themes are cleverly conveyed to us through the manner in which the Wife interweaves her personal musings and reflections with ideas from the scientific materials she's writing and editing. (Having abandoned her dreams of becoming an "Art Monster," she's now paying the family bills by taking on technical writing jobs, ranging from fact-checker of Ranger Rick-type children's science curricula to ghostwriter of a memoir by an eccentric, space-exploration-obsessed, Branson-esque millionaire.) It's like these dry scientific facts with which she spends her days become both fodder and outlet for her repressed and agonized artistic mind: like the tasks of daily (mom, married, household) life itself, the facts are both incredibly trivial and yet weighted with universal import. It's a great delivery system to invite, and require, the reader's interpretive skills and show, rather than tell, a story - so much better than being repeatedly informed, a la Hausfrau, exactly what someone is thinking and feeling and just being forced to accept it wholesale.

In other words, this is a TRUE character study. Because, it's insufficient, perhaps even cheating, but at very least disingenuous, to write a book that takes place entirely in the narrator/protagonist brain and call it a character study: That's just narrative point of view, not artistic or literary achievement. In a real character study, like this one, a reader is given tools and clues to develop her own earned understanding of a truly realistic, dynamic, evolving, and complex character. It's notable that Dept. of Speculation, using only one tiny little fraction of the page count of Hausfrau, provides a very rich sense of who the Wife is now, why she feels what she feels and does what she does, what she was like long ago, how and why she changed and ended up at this point, and in what direction she might go, or not go, next. (And I actually didn't get ANY of this successfully from Hausfrau, not even in the extra pages.) Plus, in Dept. of Speculation, I was still able to connect my own thoughts and dots -- they weren't just laid out for me, like railroad ties... -- and thus, it was an immensely more rewarding, challenging read for me, and one that left a pretty deep and lasting impression.
Profile Image for Emily B.
424 reviews416 followers
August 10, 2021
I liked the format of this book, short quirky paragraphs that do not necessarily relate to the last one. Which I found this similar to Bluets. However for me, for this to work I would have liked the book to be a bit shorter and slightly more of an obvious plot so I could read it in one sitting. As it is I felt the need for a short break after reading 25%.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that parts which talk of her daughter, her relationship with her daughter or the experience of motherhood. I both liked and disliked that most characters did not have names and that one in particular was referred to as 'the philosopher' however at times I sort of lost grip on them because of this.

'There is still suck a crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it'
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,923 reviews35.4k followers
January 20, 2017
I wrote a review a couple of years ago...
sorry --not sure where it is
Might show up Mariah!!
Profile Image for Fuchsia  Groan.
162 reviews197 followers
October 20, 2020
Su estructura: fogonazos de memoria, un reflejo muy realista del mecanismo mental. Nos empeñamos en construir una narrativa lineal de nuestra historia, un relato, pero lo que hacemos es rellenar los huecos que al poco rato se abren en nuestra memoria, con una invención más o menos aproximada de la realidad. Aquella conversación. No ser capaz de parar el llanto. Un tren. Un feliz reencuentro, su triste contrario. Una carcajada. Un abrazo, un beso. Aquella mirada. Un viaje. Un libro. Un pensamiento. Lo del medio es niebla. Relámpagos en la bruma, en eso consiste recordar.

Los recuerdos son microscópicos. Partículas diminutas que se agolpan y se dispersan. Gente minúscula, los llamó Edison. Criaturas. Tenía una teoría sobre su origen: llegaban del espacio exterior.

La narradora, con su propio código y su esquema mental, recuerda. Mis códigos, con los que inevitablemente he leído, chocan de manera frontal con los suyos. La lectura me ha provocado un desconcierto profundo, angustia, y contrariamente a lo que leo que ha pensado mucha gente, cierta sensación de irrealidad.

Entiendo, pero no comprendo. Lo sé, es una historia mil veces repetida. A veces, cuando alguien cuenta algo similar, miro a mi alrededor buscando a quien, con una media sonrisa, parezca que también desea preguntar: “¿es esto una broma, dónde está la cámara oculta?” Aunque no lo parezca... ¿llorarán de risa?

¿Aspiran realmente al gris?, ¿será el gris la fórmula de su felicidad, la anestesia?, ¿realmente han renunciado?, ¿va su vida tan en serio?

Pero ahora parece posible que la verdad acerca de envejecer sea que cada vez haya menos cosas de las que una pueda reírse, hasta que al final no quede nada en lo que una estuviera convencida de que nunca iba a convertirse.

¿Será así como lo sobrelleva la gente, mirando a su alrededor y sabiendo que estamos todos navegando en el barco de la decepción? “Mal de muchos...”

Su hermana ha hecho un trato con su marido. Pase lo que pase, haz como en los años cincuenta. Ni una palabra en toda la vida.

¿Para conseguir qué? Explícame por qué merece la pena, cómo puede ser que merezca la pena. ¿Cómo luchar contra la disolución de un vínculo volviendo precisamente a lo que lo destruyó? ¿Habrá algo que no he entendido?

Una elección que no tiene sentido: todo o nada. Todo, en no pocos casos, como sinónimo de nada. Salvar la etiqueta, qué más dará el contenido. Ahogarnos juntos o ahorgarnos el uno al otro, mantenernos fieles hasta la muerte a creencias jamás cuestionadas, no vaya a ser que de otra forma podamos quizás mantener esa luz encendida:

Todos nacíamos irradiando luz, pero esa luz se iba extinguiendo poco a poco (si uno tenía suerte) o de forma abrupta (si no la tenía). Las personas más carismáticas —los poetas, los místicos, los exploradores— eran como eran porque habían logrado conservar, a saber cómo, una pequeña parte de esa luz que estaba condenada a desaparecer. Pero lo más horroroso de todo —y lo más insoportable, a nuestro parecer— era que el orden natural establecía que la luz se extinguiera. A veces, cuando uno tenía veinte años, aguantaba un poco; después, a los treinta, asomaba un leve destello por aquí o por allá; y luego los ojos se oscurecían casi siempre.

¿Y si no se ha apagado, y si sin saberlo, entre esos pactos absurdos que hicisteis, estaba el de guardar vuestras bombillas en una caja del desván?

«Creo que me daba miedo entregarme del todo —dice ella—. Porque entregarse del todo es terrorífico. Si lo haces, lo pierdes todo». Él asiente y de pronto hay lágrimas en los ojos de los dos.

No sé casi nada, pero sé por experiencia (¿por inexperiencia tal vez?) que es justo al revés.

¿Qué dirán los extraterrestres cuando vengan a visitarnos? “Planet earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.”

Lo que dijo Rilke: Quiero estar con los que conocen cosas secretas; si no, prefiero estar solo.
Profile Image for LeeAnne.
291 reviews210 followers
January 30, 2022
This short story reminds me of the first big hill on a wooden roller coaster. That ominous, “click-click-click” as the chain slowly pulls the cars up the steep hill. The suspense builds, but be prepared for that fast, drop, straight down.

The nameless characters are The Husband and The Wife. A woman is on the verge of a nervous breakdown as her marriage is imploding. Her story is told in rapid-fire, quick-cut scenes. This gives the reader small, fragmented but intimate glimpses into the couple’s relationship at critical points in time.

The author perfectly describes the feeling of terror of a new mom who gave up her identity to become a mom and wife. She wonders, “What on earth have I done to my life?”

There is some cutting humor too:

  “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.”

Personal and intimate.
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
539 reviews7,236 followers
December 31, 2014
Very nice, subtle novel. The prose is clear, stripped-back and easy to follow, it's very incidental and smooth. I don't know, reading this novel feels like that moment when you slip into a hot bath and suddenly everything is alright. The words swash around you with their calming violence, constantly bobbling and trickling along with their nonchalant rhythm. This is a wonderful piece. I'm saddend that more people haven't read this. I truly recommend it.
Profile Image for Henk.
822 reviews
November 16, 2021
Beautiful language and a stream of consciousness that feels familiar to anyone in a long term relation. Still I feel the narrative itself is rather too thin to carry the book
There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.

Jenny Offill in Dept. of Speculation tells the story of a woman growing up, her relationship with her child and her marriage under pressure.
The unnamed narrator her life as a writer annex university teacher is very reflective and in a way reminded me of the main character in Red Pill from Hari Kunzru: affluent, highly educated and overthinking. Her observations on her life are filled with beautiful quotes, sometimes from German poets or philosophers, sometimes from Offill herself.
The use of language is certainly the strongest part of the book, in short paragraphs this is definitely an easy book to read. The story itself is rather less interesting in my view, with the reflections on motherhood being most interesting, while the marriage troubles feel rather particular.
Offill is very open eyed about what bringing up a young girl brings with it, especially when the daughter turns out to be rather fussy, with some rose coloured love reflections. but also a lot of vomit, crying and sleepless nights.
Going to nature as a response to marital problems and a way of finding love again seems rather to neat for me.

Still a breeze to read and very well written on a sentence level, as below quotes illustrate:
Life equals structure plus activity

To live in a city is to be forever flinching.

Nothing is better for man than a good wife, and no horror matches a bad one - Hesiod

The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out.

Her husband seams rather old-fashioned in terms of the household department

Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.

I’m sorry I let you get so lonely, she told him later. Stop apologizing, he said.

Also she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friend calls it.
Profile Image for Jean-Luke.
Author 1 book373 followers
November 17, 2021
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets something like Tully meets a Modern Love essay in The New York Times. We are so used to seeing our own lives and the lives of others as stories with a beginning and an ending, but a series of fragments and random thoughts with many beginnings and many endings is far more accurate. Not that there isn't a story here--it's simply presented like one of those fancy deconstructed desserts, and I found it refreshing given the low page count. Had it been a 300 or 400 page book, however, I would have given up. This book has the humor and raw intensity of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (slightly less raw, perhaps) but suffers slightly from the detachment of books like The Buddha in the Attic and The Virgin Suicides. The wife is the wife and the husband is the husband and never shall either have a name.
Profile Image for Ben Loory.
Author 24 books677 followers
September 1, 2016
the writing is excellent, but the story (marriage/baby/infidelity/unpleasantness) just makes me wanna open myself with a sword
Profile Image for Cher.
800 reviews274 followers
September 7, 2015
1 star - I really hated it.

DNF'd at 10% (a whopping 15 minutes of reading, maybe). Turns out it is a collection of random gibberish. Here are two excerpts that speak for themselves:

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.

One night you played a track you’d made for me. An ice cream truck overlaid with the sound of gulls at Coney Island and the Wonder Wheel spinning.
It is stupid to have a telescope in the city, but we bought one anyway.
That year I didn’t travel alone. I’ll meet you there, you said.

First Sentence: Antelopes have 10× vision, you said.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,521 followers
May 3, 2016
An unnamed Brooklyn writer and teacher meets a man, has a child with him and then discovers he’s cheating on her.

Sounds familiar, right? What makes this slim novel so memorable is the way the story unfolds in a series of vignettes that can be anything from a quote from a poem to an odd historical fact to haiku-like observations about life. Reading the book takes work. Images recur, characters known by their titles (“the philosopher,” “the almost astronaut”) come and go, and we’re left to connect the dots.

But it's worth it. The result is funny, painful and emotionally expansive, reminiscent of the work of Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel and Deborah Eisenberg.
Profile Image for Michael Ferro.
Author 2 books211 followers
April 11, 2018
Jenny Offill's DEPT. OF SPECULATION is a smorgasbord of delightfully mindful appetizers that all come together as one infinitely satisfying meal. At times hilarious, other times sad, though sometimes both, this slim novel defies much of the trope stylings of a modern doomed marriage story, instead providing the reader with an endless supply of little food for thought nuggets of wisdom and whimsey mixed among the narrative of a marriage crumbling before our eyes.

Offill has weaved plenty of speculation into the plot here, which offers rich passages of "deeper reading" for those who don't mind constantly pausing while reading in order to ponder an uncanny musing or strange turn of phrase (and I for one don't mind it at all). In the end, DEPT. OF SPECULATION is a book about life and wonder, about bitter disappointment and the realities of life that often get lost in the minutia, and those who read it will likely find themselves highlighting plenty of sections to come back to and think upon during a dreary, rainy day.
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