Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
What do I think of Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. of Speculation?
Well, first of all I wonder whether it’s really a novel and not more of a long poem (in free verse, naturally). It’s composed of many independent paragraphs that may or may not relate much to the ones above and below them, that may refer to the narrator as “I,” “me,” or “the wife” (then back to “me”), and that quote everyone from Rilke to John Berryman to Martin Luther to the I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER cat. It’s also a sometimes frustrating garden path cluttered with vines, broken paving stones, fallen leaves and fruit, bass-ackward turns, and clumps of manure. There’s a nasty baby and a non-communicative mate, but mainly there’s a protagonist who is extremely hard to root for because she’s self-impressed, self-indulgent, and sometimes more vapid than her intellect would suggest. She admits she’s been a bad wife.
Yet, I loved this book.
Probably the biggest reason I loved this book is that Offill dares to tell the story in a completely unconventional way. This is something I can dig, because novels are at risk these days of growing bland in their structure and conventions, predictable, and annoyingly formulaic – even literary novels. I think this is because publishers want literary novels to rub up against certain genres so they can achieve crossover status, but it could also be that writers are trying to please both publishers and readers and fall into the trap of giving everyone what they seem to want. Offill says poo-poo to that.
There’s only the vaguest hint of a plot here (girl gets boy, girl lives through boy cheating on her, etc.), but there’s a wealth of value. You come away amazed at the mass of details this world offers us, if we’ll let ourselves be aware of them. Not to mention the untapped knowledge that’s out there. Offill has harvested some interesting tidbits, like how the German word for when a woman gains weight after a breakup translates as “grief bacon.” You better believe I wrote that down.
If you’re not fond of tales told in new ways, lucky for you Dept. of Speculation is pretty short at just 177 pp with wide margins.
I’d give it a shot if I were you. If nothing else it shows you that there’s more than one way to drill into a human mind.