Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Title: Dept. of Speculation
Author: Jenny Offill
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: January 28, 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband, postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes – a colicky baby, bedbugs, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions – the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it, as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

I've been sitting here, staring at this blank screen, trying to figure out what it is I could possibly say about Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. I think it's perhaps one of the best books I've read this year and definitely one of the most well-written. (Between the stories and quotes and trivia, it feels a bit like a Jeanette Winterson project, or Nicole Krauss' The History of Love, or Siobhan from the no-longer-maintained serialcomma.net.) (I started transcribing my favorite passages but thought I might be better off just investing in my own copy of the book because there were too many to list.)

Dept. of Speculation is about a lot of things. The slow descent into love. The process of finding someone you want to keep and who wants to stay with you too. How it sometimes feels like wading through water. It's about the gradual formation of a family and the life that comes with it and all the lives we give up. It's about the way our brains are wired, the way we make associations, the way we move from one thought to the next. It's about writing – the art and the science and the self-awareness, and how we sometimes have to trade our sanity and our happiness to create a thing of mad beauty.

This book is about the human condition. As you acquaint yourself with Jenny Offill's narrator, you think, "Christ, she is terrible, self-absorbed, judgmental, just awful," but meanwhile you're nodding in agreement. "I can't say I blame her. I would probably feel the same." It's the painful brutality of truth. She writes with such precision that if we were to say half the things she thinks, I think maybe we would all break into a million pieces, like sticking a pin into a fracture point.

And, anyway, maybe that's why you change your mind about her – you think, well, she's not so bad, because everything she says is spot-on. And suddenly it feels like we are justified in all our despicable, weak, human ways. Because she's insightful and she makes observations about the things we want, the things we need as human beings. Not just to survive – no, more than that. The things we need in order to feel fulfilled. To feel safe, intact, protected. The things that make us want to stay. She shows us all of these things in short, pithy statements, and you can't help but think to yourself, Yes, yes, that's right. And soon enough it doesn't matter so much that you did a horrible thing, or that he did things that left scars, because you realize we're all just struggling, trying to figure out how to exist in this fragile human state. (The book jacket is so very accurate. This universal shipwreck that unites us all, indeed.)

It's a terrible book to read if you're even a little bit cynical about love. Or if you're scared to fall in love. Or if you think love conquers all. It's terrible and frightening and exactly right, and it will make you rethink everything you know. Life is a series of gray lines that get grayer and grayer as time goes on.

There's an old expression: Things always look better in the morning. That's what this book feels like – like nothing is ever set in stone, like maybe life looks better once you've lived through it.

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