It would be almost be worth my (hypothetical) husband having an affair—maybe worth going through life with a name reminiscent of both “awful” and “offal”—if it meant I could go on to write a book as spectacular as Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation.
A slim treatise on the maturation of a marriage, DOS is so compact as to be easily mistaken for simplistic. There is a husband and there is a wife, who are for all intents and purposes normal. They argue over groceries, money, chores. They have a daughter. They go to therapy (referred to as the “Little Theater of Hurt Feelings”). But don’t be fooled. DOS’s nameless female lead, who refers to herself as I, she or the wife depending on where in the couple’s emotional timeline we are, is one of the most interesting narrators I’ve stumbled across in recent memory. And the book’s unique format—short bursts of text that run the gamut from anecdotes to literary quotes to philosophical musings—belies its sophistication. The otherwise humdrum resonates on a much deeper level here.
Every blurb on my now well-worn paperback copy of Dept. of Speculation uses some adjective to describe the book’s seemingly tactile brilliance. Vanity Fair calls it dazzling. New Yorker: it glitters. Boston Globe: sparkling. New York Review of Books: shimmering. Without giving too much credence to back-of-book blurbage, I do think there’s something to be said for this particular theme of praise. Because DOS isn’t just beautifully written and interestingly crafted; it’s also multi-faceted, and manages to be poignant and funny and angry and bleak all at the same time. Each chapter, sometimes even each paragraph, captures life from a different angle, and the composite of those flashes of perspective is as important as each on its own.
I develop an abiding interest in emergency precautions. I try to enlist my husband’s help in this. I ask him to carry a pocketknife and a small flashlight in his backpack. Ideally, I’d like him to have one of those smoke hoods that doubles as a parachute. (If you are rich and scared enough you can buy one of these, I have read.) He thinks I have a morbid imagination. Nothing’s going to happen, he says. But I want him to make promises. I want him to promise that if something happens he won’t try to save people, that he’ll just get home as fast as he can. He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it. Leave behind the office girl and the old lady and the fat man wheezing on the stairs. Come home, I tell him.
My husband comes into the bathroom, holding a hammer. He is talking, reciting a litany of households things. “I fixed the wobbly chair,” he tells me. “And I put a mat under the rug so that it won’t ride up again. The toilet needs a new washer though. It won’t stop running.” This is another way in which he is an admirable person. If he notices something is broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.
Sometimes I find myself having little conversations about marriage with the punk rock kids upstairs.
You know what’s punk rock about marriage?
You know what’s punk rock about marriage?
All the puke and shit and piss.
Last year, during a brief tenure in a short-lived book club focused on unlikable female characters, I read Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, a slim novel about a woman named Olga who gets dumped by her husband and descends into an aggressive depression. In many ways, DOA and DOS are strikingly similar, two sides of the same infidelity coin (where heads is getting left for a 20-something and tails is just finding out your husband slept with one).
But what The Day of Abandonment had in passion—in sheer unadulterated anger and hurt—DOS has in nuance. It’s not a book about discovering who you are without your spouse, but rather who you are with them. It’s a book that will resonate with anyone who’s been in a stable but monotonous relationship, with anyone who has questioned their professional and financial and geographical choices, with anyone who has warily stacked their life up against the life their younger self imagined they might have. Basically, it’s a book that will resonate with anyone.
TITLE: Dept. of Speculation
AUTHOR: Jenny Offill
PAGES: 177 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Last Things (& children’s books)
SORTA LIKE: Elena Ferrante meets David Sedaris meets Tom Perrotta
FIRST LINE: “Antelopes have 10x vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.”