Art, love and other disasters: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

dept_of_spec_coverMy plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

This shouldn’t really be a novel but it is. It has the simplest of plots, the narrative is threadbare. I read the first page and had some doubts about it. But somehow, and out of nowhere, it is the most wholly satisfying story I have read in a long time. I read it in a day, finished just after midnight, and I had lucid dreams about it afterwards. This book is so, so good.

Our unnamed narrator documents her marriage. She meets and marries her husband, they buy a house and have a daughter. Her colleagues keep asking her when her second novel will be out. Her second novel is not nearly done because their infant girl is all encompassing, such a tiny being taking up so, so much space. She was proto-art monster and now she’s a mother with a newborn infant; knowing exactly how far she can get away from the house and still be able to run home when her daughter starts to scream. Which she does. A lot. Like “an alarm clock that was perpetually going off” in our narrator’s head.

After you left for work, I would stare at the door as if it might open again

My love for her felt doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.

She was small enough then to still fall asleep on your chest. Sometimes I fed you dinner with a spoon so you wouldn’t have to raise your arms and wake her.

What the baby liked best was speed. If I took her outside, I had to walk quickly, even trot a little. If I slowed down or stopped, she would start wailing again. It was the dead of winter and some days I walked or trotted for hours, softly singing.

What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d do my best to craft an anectdote for you out of nothing.


Later, the novel flicks to third person narration and she is just “the wife”. She is playing a part now. She is the good wife, the bad wife, the wife who’d do anything for her daughter. She is the jilted wife. She is the wife for whom there might never be a second novel. She is overwhelmed, she takes her medication, she moves to the country, she tries to save her family. She tries to save her concept of herself within the wife-mother definitions of her family.

It is an intimate, microscopic, sometimes uncomfortable worm’s-eye view. This is a prose-poetry memoiresque novella. And if that sounds wanky it’s possible you won’t like this book. Though keep in mind I made some of those words up. It’s also a very sad story, occasionally funny, entirely relateable. Offell somehow constructs so, so much out of so few words. Our narrator’s life, her isolation during her daughter’s infant years. Her exhaustion and ambivalence are so beautifully wrought with the most sparing of brush strokes. It’s like a film school short film. Sweet and intense; a series of disconnected vignettes. Each paragraph doesn’t necessarily connect with the next but the segues are stunningly played. Offill occasionally has her narrator stop to quote another writer. To be honest, it is a bit wanky. But maybe I like that in my fiction. This novel is the dictionary definition of pithy. Or should be if the dictionary writers had read this novel. More people should read this novel.

It is clearly impossible to talk about this novel in anything but short, choppy sentences.

Dept of Speculation, Jenny Offill: Five stars.

Read it if: you’re not alarmed by the thought of bedbugs. (Yes. I said it.)

About Rachel Watts

I am a writer from Perth, Western Australia. My speculative fiction novella Survival will be released in early 2018. View all posts by Rachel Watts

2 responses to “Art, love and other disasters: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

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