Paul Bryant's Reviews > Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
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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?



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Reading Progress

September 5, 2015 – Started Reading
September 5, 2015 – Shelved
September 6, 2015 – Shelved as: novels
September 6, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Annie (new) - added it

Annie I think I liked your review more than the excerpt.


message 2: by Jaye (new) - added it

Jaye re: that bird. Maybe it was HOW you said it.
I've got about 20 of them, and variations, on my back porch right now. They eat a lot and bring 2 or more rounds of bird children every summer. Lazy children begging to be fed, even when huge, flapping their lazy wings with open mouths (beaks). I'm a sap for slinging them bird seed all summer.
p.s. i started that book a while ago, but set it aside, i forget why.


Virginia An x-ray of a novel, or a creative writing student's post-it notes towards a novel about a disintegrating marriage overly-symbolized by those overly signifying bedbugs?


Paul Bryant Jaye, it maybe that they just moved over to your town. Nottingham isn't all that great a place, there are no museums or art galleries to speak of. But I miss them.

Virginia - oof, that's harsh, but maybe it happened like that. Throughout the first half people are always making pointed comments to The Wife aka The Mother about the non-appearance of The Second Novel. As we know JO had some success around 2000 with her first novel, so it could be that after years of making notes towards her 2nd novel she just gave up and published the notes and everybody loves it.


message 5: by Amanda (new)

Amanda NEVER MANDY I love this review! (Though it did nothing for my interest level in the book.)


Paul Bryant thanks Amanda - do you get sparrows?


message 7: by Amanda (new)

Amanda NEVER MANDY Yes and many others. I love watching our feathered friends going about their business year long. Bird lover at heart.


Emma Oh, this book really worked for me. I took it more as being about the changes on your life - autonomy, identity, creative energy etc - that children inflict, and felt the adultery line was secondary to that. And that the form/style represents an adaptation to that condition.


message 9: by Negri (new)

Negri Told you they were all autobiographies.


message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant this sure was... but I'm not convinced. What about Dracula?


Hannah Garden I felt this book so sharply. I think "an x-ray of a novel" might be the perfect description of it, though I am reading that like "Damn so incisive, no wads of clotty flesh at all just the hard ass cold ass bones, perfect." I do find your starting premise that a novel-which-is-truly-a-memoir gets dressed up as such in order that it may find handier footing a flawed one, but maybe that is why I loved this and you did not. You are my favorite reviewer on here!


message 12: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Bryant many thanks Hannah.... as it happens I'm on the lookout for any interesting modern novels (say last 5 years)... I seem not to have enough on my to-read shelf at the moment. Any suggestions?


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Jean Luc Godard- "Truth is told in fiction and fiction in truth."

Generalities are difficult; as things blur.

Assuming a somewhat cynical awareness; it seems likely that they look forward to TV interviews to explain what prompted them to write that; as the interviews pay them much more money than the book.

But, that alone is too easy by itself and not entirely true. DFW did a number of shorties regarding "Porous Borders."


Hannah Garden I recently read and adored Elisa Albert's After Birth. I hear The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing is wonderful, will report back once the library calls in my copy.


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