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December 18, 2014

'Dept. of Speculation': Offill proves brilliant things come in small packages

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Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2014 12:30 am

“Dept. of Speculation”

by Jenny Offill; Knopf, 2014; 179 pages; $22.95.

It is not run-of-the-mill, this new book from Jenny Offill, whose previous novel, “Last Things,” was selected as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. It is a book of constant surprise.

It is brief — at fewer than 200 pages, brief enough to be read in one sitting. Yet it’s impossible to keep from returning to sections to savor them. Its plot is ordinary: A wife finds her life, her marriage, unfulfilling. Yet it’s impossible to put the book down. Its protagonist is exasperating: “Sometimes I conduct interviews with myself. What do you want? I don’t know. What do you want? I don’t know. What seems to be the problem? Just leave me alone.” Yet it’s impossible to look away.

The wife — that’s what she calls herself — has a Post-it above her desk, a note reading “work, not love.” She has decided to live as an “art monster,” — only the ordinary will never be allowed. Celestial romance, however, gives way to conventional marriage; writing gives way to grading the writing of others; artistic freedom gives way to ghostwriting a book for a preposterous, pretentious “almost astronaut ... obsessed with Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.”

Life in New York City is exasperatingly commonplace. It is cooking and colic and preschool and head lice and a lot of other “stuff.” No scrap attributed to Sagan or Keats or Kafka or the Stoics or even a doomed Russian cosmonaut offers comfort.

What does help is her young daughter who makes ordinary demands. The wife freely admits, “I would give up everything for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.”

Then there’s the husband’s infidelity. There is advice from family, friends and therapists to stomach. There’s counseling, what the wife calls “The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings,” to endure. There are books on infidelity to sift through.

Then one day there’s reconciliation.

What the wife finally grasps are some words she remembers from Rilke: “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.”

And that’s “Dept. of Speculation,” the name the wife has given her marriage, her life. The complex brilliance of Offill is very difficult to write about. There are adjectives like funny, unsettling, daring, poetic, poignant and insightful to describe the power of her tiny book. They aren’t enough. They simply are not.

Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.

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