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Dept. of Speculation

January 21, 2014

I got a copy of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation from Alfred A. Knopf because it looked interesting, and then found it was the only book I could read during our holiday travels, because it is written in succinct little sections. I kept wanting just one more.

It’s a fairly ordinary story, about two people who get married, have a child, and then try to stay married. But along the way, there are amusing and reflective sections:

“Studies suggest that reading makes enormous demands on the neurological system. One psychiatric journal claimed that African tribes needed more sleep after being taught to read. The French were great believers in such theories. During WWII, the largest rations went to those engaged in arduous physical labor and those whose work involved reading and writing.”

“There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.”

The couple experience the magic and frustrations of the first few years of their daughter’s life. They get bedbugs in their urban apartment. They say the kinds of ridiculous things to each other that parents always do when one of them has had to take the child to the ER: “You are only supposed to do that if you can remain very calm. Were you very calm?”

About halfway through the story, still told in sections, the husband has an affair, which causes the wife to fall apart, although “no one gets the crackup he expects. The wife was planning for the one with the headscarf and the dark jokes and the people speaking kindly of her at her funeral.” She remembers that “they used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.”

They separate at the point when
“the wife has take to laughing maniacally when the husband says something, then repeating the word back incredulously.
Nice????
Fun????
She has seen this rhetorical strategy used before by a soon-to-be ex-wife talking to her soon-to-be ex-husband.”

They get back together, though.
“At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.”

They move to the country, and watch their daughter play outside. “The husband and wife whisper-fight now in the gloves-off approved way. She calls him a coward. He calls her a bitch. But still they aren’t that good at it yet. Sometimes one or the other stops in the middle and offers the other a cookie or a drink.”

In the end, they stay together. The simplicity of the sections–of the moments of wanting and hurt and reconciliation–tells this story in a way that a fuller narrative could not. It’s made up of snippets, and no matter how much these two people speculate, they can’t weave it into a grander narrative. They end up paying attention to the moments, and trying hard to let the rest take care of itself.

The sections end up feeling like stanzas of a long, narrative poem. They tell the story, but they convey the emotion, rather than describing the details.  And the emotion of a long-term marriage rings true to me, a reader who has lived for more years married than single.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2014 9:07 pm

    That is a high density of good quotations! How long and upsetting is the bedbug section? I don’t think I can read a book that goes into too much detail about bedbugs, be it ever so well-written and well-observed.

    • January 22, 2014 10:32 am

      It’s not that long and upsetting– mostly it’s shrouded in secrecy, because they keep reminding themselves not to talk about it.

  2. January 22, 2014 11:36 am

    This sounds like a lovely book. I really liked the excerpts you shared.

  3. January 22, 2014 1:18 pm

    This does sound really good!

  4. January 23, 2014 9:32 am

    Yay! I’d been wondering about this one. I enjoyed Last Things and am glad to hear you found the follow up worthwhile.

  5. April 5, 2015 10:08 am

    It really is a wonderful little book. Offill managed to take an “ordinary” storyline and make it very interesting and unusual.

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  1. Dept. of Speculation | Care's Online Book Club

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