Novella a Day in May 2020 #3

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.

26 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2020 #3

  1. I read this when it first came out. There was so much buzz about it that I invariably came away from it disappointed because my expectations just weren’t met. But reading your review reminds me of the aspects I liked. I suspect if I read the novella now I’d think it was very good indeed.

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    • Ah, I missed all the hype. I had no expectations at all. I tend to avoid hyped books these days as I so often come away disappointed. It’s a double-edged sword for authors I think – it gets their book attention and sales but then its so hard to live up to.

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  2. I also quoted the bit about holding hands and giving him the finger…it’s so good! In my own review (Jan. 21, 2014) I said I enjoyed what some here are calling the “fragmentary nature.” The way I put it is that “no matter how much these two people speculate, they can’t weave it into a grander narrative.” I like that the story of their courtship–the letters–becomes the title of the whole story.

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  3. I also read this when it came out, liked it but forgot all about by the end of the year. Some books just are like that. Even your quotes feel unfamiliar. Strange. I wonder if it will stick in your mind.

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  4. A little like Kim, I think I’m one of the few readers who found this novella a bit disappointing and slight. Offill’s vignettes are beautifully formed but instantly forgettable. (I recall someone else likening them to snowflakes, which seems like an apt description.) That said, I’m definitely an outlier on this, so it’s always enlightening to learn what others see in it!

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    • I can definitely see how the vignette style can feel unsatisfying. I liked it as I thought it captured how relationship breakdown is never straightforward and hardly ever has a clear narrative. But it will be interesting to see if it stays with me, as you & Caroline have said, it may not stick in my memory at all!

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  5. This is the author of Weather which I have seen talked about so much. This sounds lovely, I like the sound of the short chapters and the focus being on the narrator’s thoughts and feelings.

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  6. I read this years ago and looked back at my (very short) review to remind myself… your review was more helpful in recalling the story, but I did note that I had said that the writing was pithy but perhaps ‘too pithy’? I like pithy in a novella… would probably have to read it again to know what I meant!

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  7. I do like the sound of this and completely missed any hype! That the husband isn’t demonised is a definite plus and I love the thought of her holding hands and giving the finger!!

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  8. This is one I’ve wanted to read for ages (but I don’t have a copy currently). And the profile of her in the NYTimes, when Weather was new, only intensified that desire. What a great pick for this month!

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