Jenny Offill’s new novel lays bare wife’s deeper insecurities, denials

Updated: 2014-02-02T16:20:29Z


Special to The Star

Fans of Jenny Offill have something to look forward to in the new year. Fourteen years after the publication of her critically acclaimed debut novel, “Last Things,” Offill returns to fiction with “Dept. of Speculation,” a slim novel of immense emotional power.

Her latest is moving and mysterious, short enough to be read in one sitting and absolutely worth the wait.

Offill’s nameless narrator used to swap imaginative letters with her husband, always with the same return address: “Dept. of Speculation.”

After the birth of their daughter, however, the relationship stagnates, the letters secreted away in his and hers boxes. When she uncovers her “famously kind” husband’s affair, she fears she’s somehow to blame: “Did she unkind and ungood and untrue him?”

The subject matter may not seem revolutionary, but Offill’s black humor and razor-edged insights breathe new life into familiar plot points: the creative writing professor with tick-tocking publication deadlines, the artist’s struggle to balance relationships and work, the growing fissures in an aging marriage’s foundation.

The book isn’t just about a marriage — it’s about a marriage as filtered through Stoic philosophy, the last words of Russian cosmonauts and the unspeakable horrors of Brooklyn bedbugs. The prose hums with similar surprises, undercutting bare sentiment with snarky self-awareness and pithy punchlines.

“That night on TV,” the narrator quips, “I saw the tattoo I wished my life had warranted. ‘If you have not known suffering, love me.’ A Russian murderer beat me to it.”

Offill’s sparse prose and bite-sized but muscled anecdotes evoke Lydia Davis — the two writers share a gift for capturing moments of profound insight and blinding rage in deceptively simple sentences.

But in a time when writers are often praised for their economical writing, Offill gives us a smarter benchmark — clean, lean sentences that seem to bloom beyond their borders, bewildering us with their magic and madness. “There is still such crookedness in my heart,” the narrator muses. “I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.”

The novel as a whole similarly outgrows the confines of its page count. Offill succeeds in crafting a narrative that, despite its slight frame, feels spacious, never rushed; her near unerring precision in language leaves her plenty of room to explore plot tangents and philosophical sidebars.

The result is a poignant patchwork narrative, assembled as a collage of anecdotes and aphorisms. Her narrator quotes student evaluations, conducts midnight self-interviews and brainstorms new fortune cookies for an American audience (“Objects create happiness. The animals are pleased to be of use.”)

That patchwork treatment extends to point of view, as well. Halfway through the novel, Offill abandons the first person narration for a more removed third — the “I” becomes “the wife.” The shift seems like a self-referential jab at her own craft: she shatters the edicts on consistent authorial distance her own narrator scribbles in the margins of her students’ stories.

Though perhaps gimmicky, the perspective shift succeeds in laying bare the wife’s deeper insecurities and denials. It reads like a literary defense mechanism, allowing the narrator to distance herself from the most painful parts of her marriage and scrutinize them with greater honesty. Her field notes are a sucker punch of bubbling rage and despair, rife with passages you’ll want to read aloud to anyone who will listen.

“She used to make fun of those people,” the wife ponders late in the novel. “With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

It may be a bit of a spoiler to reveal that “Dept. of Speculation” ends in first-person plural, a flush of hope after a cold snap. But it ends as complexly as it began, in the dizzying depths of confusion, hopelessness and wonder.

“Amazing,” Offill’s narrator admits, listening to a symphony of air conditioner hums and the soft breaths of her sleeping husband and daughter. “Out of dark waters, this.”

Liz Cook is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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