Author(s): Jenny Offill
ONE OF THE 10 BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR - THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW A Best Book of the Year: The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Vogue.com, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed In the beginning, it was easy to imagine their future. They were young and giddy, sure of themselves and of their love for each other. "Dept. of Speculation" was their code name for all the thrilling uncertainties that lay ahead. Then they got married, had a child and navigated the familiar calamities of family life--a colicky baby, a faltering relationship, stalled ambitions. When their marriage reaches a sudden breaking point, the wife tries to retrace the steps that have led them to this place, invoking everything from Kafka to the Stoics to doomed Russian cosmonauts as she analyzes what is lost and what remains. In language that shimmers with rage and longing and wit, Offill has created a brilliantly suspenseful love story--a novel to read in one sitting, even as its piercing meditations linger long after the last page.
This book, comprised of short paragraphs, observations, quotes and quips - poignant, skittish, acute or throwaway - contains a familiar domestic narrative, albeit one related at such speed (first uphill then down with the accelerator fully depressed) that it hardly adheres to the corners. The narrator, a writer and would-be ‘art monster’, unforeseeably marries and has a child (as tends frequently to happen to would-be art monsters), providing a husband and daughter to vie with writing for priority in her life. The narrator feels an ambivalence towards marriage and parenthood that she cannot fully acknowledge: love and frustration, joy and boredom - nothing seems quite to fit or satisfy, but then nothing ever seemed to fit or satisfy. We are given information about missions into space. Then, suddenly, in the midst of all this cherished but ill-fitting domesticity, the narrative switches from first to third person as the narrator’s agency is annulled by the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. The paragraphs become more cynical and bitter, the child falls out of the narrative (her absence from mention here being perhaps the most painful part of the book), the factoids concern lost arctic explorers, we are treated to bursts of (somewhat ironic) Rilkean ecstatic misery. The wife visits one of her writing students who has bandaged wrists, contemplates admission to a hospital, decides upon forcing a family relocation to the country. Only in the very last paragraph of the book is the first person narration regained, so subtly it almost isn’t noticed, intimating the possibility that something here is worth reclaiming, that something here could be rebuilt.
Admired by critics, adored by readers, Dept. of Speculation is an annihilating, electrifying account of marriage and motherhood, love and madness
Shortlisted for Folio Prize 2015.
JENNY OFFILL is the author of Last Things (Bloomsbury, 1999) which was chosen as notable or best book of the year by the Guardian, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and was a finalist for the LA Times First Fiction Prize. She teaches Creative Writing at Columbia University, and is on the faculty at Brooklyn College and Queens University of Charlotte.