Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill (2014) 177 pages
Dept. of Speculation chronicles the breakdown of a marriage from a wife’s perspective. It’s fragmentary, made up of short paragraphs and chapters, but still makes for a satisfying read. The structure effectively captures a sense of thoughts and memories, without someone trying to work everything out and explain it all in a clear narrative, because who thinks like that?
The narrator is a writer who somehow finds themselves subject to domestic demands and teaching rather than working on her own art:
“For years I kept a Post-it note above my desk. WORK NOT LOVE! was what it said. It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.”
“My 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.”
Her husband is never demonised. He’s Nice.
“He’s from Ohio. This means he never forgets to thank the bus driver or pushes in front at the baggage claim. Nor does he keep a list of those who infuriate him on a given day. People mean well. That is what he believes. How then is he married to me? I hate often and easily.”
He’s not a fully realised character, and I think this is quite deliberate. The focus is on the narrator, her thoughts, feelings and needs. Possibly its her frustration and disappointment in her life that contributes to the relationship breakdown, but we don’t know, because she can’t have that distance or perspective on it yet.
We do know that she is struggling. How she refers to herself changes from ‘I’ to ‘the wife’. Her sense of self seems as fragmented as the narrative. She loves her husband and child, but is acutely aware of her distance from them too.
“Soon everyone is asleep but me. I lie in our bed and listen to the hum of the air conditioner and the soft sound of their breathing. Amazing. Out of dark waters, this.”
Her husband’s Ohio courtesy only extends so far: he has an affair. As the couple try and pick up the pieces – and work out if they even want those pieces any more – the rage and bewilderment of the narrator is palpable. Yet there is humour in this book too:
“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.”
Uncompromising but compassionate, hopeful but real, Dept. of Speculation is a compelling short read.