Tim's Reviews > Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
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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?
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
April 23, 2014 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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message 1: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Great review, beautifully written. This sounds fascinating,


message 2: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim Thanks, Warwick. And it can be read--slowly--in an evening.


Melanie Lovely review! You've seen a lot more than I did in this book. I adored "Pitch Dark" and yet I could not fully lose myself in this one. It stayed on the surface for me, never deeper. Maybe I should revisit it at some point.


message 4: by Tim (last edited Apr 26, 2014 06:43AM) (new) - added it

Tim Thanks, Melanie. I'd be curious to see your reaction on a reread. Pitch Dark," for me, is more desperate and urgent--it flirts with depression and despair, in contrast with Speedboat, say, which has more social commentary and humor. I think of Dept. as splitting the difference, to some degree--it maintains some of Speedboat's cool distance, with an undertow of Pitch Dark's emotional intensity, but it never loses control the way PD does.


message 5: by David (new)

David Katzman Great review!


Jenny (Reading Envy) Interesting, I've never read Adler but I have one of her books on my shelf. Maybe soon!


message 7: by Tim (last edited Jun 10, 2014 07:54PM) (new) - added it

Tim Which one, Jenny? Both of her novels are great and tread in similar territory in many respects, but some would argue that the tauter Speedboat sort of prepares one for the relatively chaotic Pitch Dark.


Jenny (Reading Envy) Tim wrote: "Which one, Jenny? Both of her novels are great and tread in similar territory in many respects, but some would argue that the tauter Speedboat sort of prepares one for the relatively chaotic Pitch ..."

The one I have is Speedboat.


message 9: by Tim (new) - added it

Tim Perfect. Though you might want to slip a Russian space opera in translation in there just to cleanse the palate. :)


message 10: by Gregsamsa (new) - added it

Gregsamsa Tim wrote: "...the pleasures of the staccato, the skittery, the odd and end, the pond and the puddle."

NICE. Excellent review, Tim. TBR'd.


message 11: by Tim (last edited Jun 11, 2014 08:24AM) (new) - added it

Tim Much appreciated, Gregsamsa. In terms of your affinity for "semi-obsessive minute examinations of a small or arcane topic (e.g. The Secret Life of Dust)," are you aware of The Sound Book by Trevor Cox? I'm reading it now in a haphazard way--it's the kind of book you can open anywhere and lose a half hour in. It has entire chapters on echoes, on whispering galleries, the sounds made by ice, sand, and other natural phenomena, and so forth. "The pleasures of the staccato" indeed!


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