Are there any stories more hackneyed than stories of adultery? Possibly not. So, let’s imagine you’re a writer and you want to write a novel about adultery. How would you do it? You could hunt for a really sordid story. Or you could infuse your story with a heavy dose of original writing and, at the same time, make writing about adultery your topic. If you went down that road you might end up with something like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. We’ve read the story she tells so many times before, but we never read it told the way she chose to tell it.
The plot is summarized quickly. A woman and a man meet, fall in love, get married, have a child, are happy. Then he cheats. She’s devastated. They fight and grieve and get back together. Jenny Offill could have told this many different ways, but she chose a fragmented approach. Maybe I’ve read too much flash fiction and prose poetry recently, but to me, that’s exactly what Dept. of Speculation is— a novel in flash fiction form. Like flash fiction, it’s highly condensed, pared down, stripped of anything superfluous. It uses formatting as a means of expression, short paragraphs that are arranged like verses in poems. It’s episodic, uses defamiliarization and counterpoint. Reverses expectations, wants to surprise. All characteristics of the condensed art of flash fiction. And it works. Almost every element, each paragraph that has been set apart, can be read individually, like a mini-story. They all offer something and, just like the wheels of a clock, are perfect in themselves.
There’s an interesting use of POV. Before the adultery there’s a first person narrator, after the adultery the POV changes to third. Instead of the pronouns You and I Offill uses “the wife” and “the husband”. Only in the very last chapter she slowly moves back to first person, almost imperceptibly. Maybe it was the only way to write about the sorrow, pain and grief and avoid cliché and bathos. The result was that I felt kept at arm’s length by the book as a whole, but the individual parts moved me often.
The narrator is a teacher of creative writing. She writes about her student’s stories but, also about her own and how it should have been written differently. I liked those metafictional parts the most.
Of course we wonder how autobiographical it is. At times I felt like reading a personal essay.
There’s a lot to love in this book. Many sentences and passages I admired. Telling such an age-old banal story but infuse it with so much originality – form and thoughts – deserves high praise. And it goes beyond adultery. There are passages in which Offill captures bliss and joy without being corny. Passages in which she praises the wonder of creation and the vastness of the universe. Domestic bliss meets transcendent happiness.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t enjoy it unreservedly because it was too much. For a novel it was almost too rich and for a short story collection it lacked variety in tone, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a hybrid form, and, as such, needs a specific kind of reading.
To give you an impression here are a few quotes:
One night we let her sleep in our room because the air conditioner is better. We all pile into the big bed. There is a musty animal smell to her casts now. She brings in the nightlight that makes fake stars and places it on the bedside table. 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.
How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. 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 will be never.
She would not have let one of her students write the scene this way. Not with the pouring rain and the wife’s broken umbrella and the girl in her long black coat. To begin with, she’d suggest taking out the first scene on the subway, the boring one, where the wife pretends to be a Buddhist. (I am a person, she is a person, I am a person, she is a person, etc. etc.) Needed? Can this be shown through gesture?
She has wanted to sleep with other people, of course. One or two in particular. But the truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn’t dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw. Not a virtue.
If you’d like to read another review. Max has reviewed here.
This is the third book of my 20 under 200 project.