Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation (2014)

Dept. of Speculation

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.

Stewart O’Nan: The Odds (2012)

The Odds

Stewart O’Nan’s novel The Odds is the second novel of my 20 Under 200 project. It’s the third of O’Nan’s novels I’ve read so far and while Last Night at the Lobster is still my favourite, I thought this was very well done.

The Odds tells the story of a middle-aged couple, who spends Valentines Weekend at an expensive hotel in Niagara Falls. They are broke, about to lose their beloved house, and ready to file for bankruptcy. Their marriage has been crumbling for years and after this weekend they will get a divorce. Basically, because they hope to hide assets. The interesting element, the element that generates tension in this novel, is that the reader knows from the beginning this weekend means different things for the characters. Marion considers this a weekend of goodbye. The divorce will bring her freedom. Art, on the other hand, considers this to be a new beginning. He’ll ask his wife to marry him again. Unsurprisingly, the book is full of double entendre and subtext. Watching the protagonists circle each other, trying to find out if they made the right move – Marion hopes having sex isn’t giving the impression, she’s still in for a new beginning, while Art hopes the flashy diamond ring does really express love and is not just seen as a reckless token – is enthralling.

While these dynamics would be interesting enough to follow, there’s something else ging on here. Niagara Falls was where they spent their honeymoon but it’s also a place where you can gamble. This might have been the most interesting part of the book and it shattered a few of my illusions. How naïve was I to believe that Niagara Falls offered nothing but a spectacular view of one of nature’s most amazing offerings. I’ve been taught, Niagara Falls is a garish, small version of Las Vegas. Flashing lights and casinos included. I honestly don’t get it. Do people really enjoy illuminated sights? In garish colors at that? I remember when I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time in its all-year-round Christmassy illumination – I was disgusted. But this seems even more sacrilegious.

The trip to the casino makes a lot of sense because Art thinks he has figured out how to win big time at the roulette wheel, using the Martingale system. He’s certain that working with the odds will save them.

I found it amusing that Stewart O’Nan used different statistics as titles for his chapters. Odds of a couple making love on Valentine’s Day 1 in 14 – Odds of a U.S. citizen filing for bankruptcy: 1 in 17 – Odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary: 1 in 6 – Odds of surviving going over the Falls without a barrel: 1 in 1,5000,000. Of course, all these are relevant to the story and made me think of those long chapter titles we find in many 19th century novels that give a flavour of what follows.

While they spend their days queuing for hours to see the many tourist attractions, at night they hit the casinos. If you want to find out whether the odds are against them – you’ll have to read the book.

I found this very well written, very realistic. I particularly liked the way he showed the absurdity of a tourist business that transforms a natural phenomenon into a tawdry theme park. Pretty sad, to be honest. It was equally excellent how he described how two people can have very different feelings about the same thing and that even in a marriage you may very well live with a stranger.

What kept me from loving this was that the people described are very realistic, but not exactly interesting. Since this is the second novel about middle-aged people, written by a man, I wonder whether men’s view of middle age in our society isn’t more negative than women’s view. Often, in novels written by women, the middle-aged protagonist starts a new, freer life. This is to some extent reflected in the attitude of the two protagonist. While Art thinks it would be a catastrophe if they spilt, it means freedom for Marion.

After finishing this book I’ve asked myself two questions:

What are the odds that I’ll visit Niagara Falls: 1 in 10,000

What are the odds I’ll pick up another Stewart O’Nan novel? 1:1

Maybe The Odds isn’t Stewart O’Nan’s best novel but it’s still well worth reading.

I first read about The Odds on Guy’s blog here.

Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2012)

The Sense of an Ending

When I posted my 20 under 200 list last week, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was the novel that was mentioned the most and, so, I decided to pick it as the first novel of my project.

I don’t think, I have to write a lengthy summary as many other bloggers have done so already. Just a few words. The narrator, Tony, is in his 60s and looking back on his life. While most of that life is painfully average and there’s not a lot to say about it, his early youth is scrutinized and described in detail. This scrutiny serves a purpose. His past has come back to haunt him and Tony tries to uncover what exactly happened all those years ago, only to find out, his memory is more than a little faulty. While some people and events are still fresh in his mind, a lot has undergone a transformation and changed so much, that the actual events and the remembered events have but little in common.

I loved the way the narrator pieced together his memories, how he tried to make sense, and showed us how, often, we distort our memories to think better of ourselves or forget unpleasant events. I also loved the description of the four high school boys; their idealism that is always paired with more mundane occupations like chasing girls and hoping for sex.

Nonetheless, I can’t say I enjoyed this book. The voice got on my nerves. The way the narrator constantly tried to turn the reader into his accomplice by seeking reassurance, annoyed me. And I found him bland and depressing.

I also found hat there was a profound contradiction at the heart of this novel. On one side we have a very subtle analysis of memory and the tricks it plays on us; on the other side, we have a narrator who is an obtuse bore. For me, these are clearly two different people. One is the author, the other is the narrator. I really don’t think that someone who tells a story like Tony does and who lives such an uneventful life, just drifting, never striving for anything, never questioning, would come up with such amazing passages like this one:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly : tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

This doesn’t sound like our narrator. This sounds like Julian Barnes speaking.

Don’t get me wrong, this novel has a lot to offer. The portrayal of adolescent boys is spot on and endearing. The analysis of memory is fascinating and how the theme was tied into the plot was very well done. I can’t say the end surprised me, but several other revelations did. What kept me from truly enjoying it was the narrator and his way of talking to the reader.

 

20 Under 200 – A Summer Reading List

20 under 200 -2

Like so many others, I’ve decided to do something about those huge piles of unread books and not buy so many new ones anymore. Quite a few of the bloggers I know have joined Eva Stalker’s #TBR20 project. The idea is to pick 20 books from your piles and not buy any new books before you read those.

A similar initiative is Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer. Both sound great, but I felt like giving them a twist and that’s why I’ll start my own project called 20 under 200. I’ve chosen 20 books from my piles, which are all under 200 pages. Ideally, I won’t buy any more books until I’ve read those. I will however allow myself to read other, longer books from the piles or exchange some that are on the photos against other novels under 200 pages.

20 under 200

Interestingly, the pile is very diverse, although I didn’t plan that at all. I think I managed to find books from 14 different countries: Japan, Korea, US, UK, Canada, France, Italy. Belgium, Iran, Germany, Poland, Norway, Finland, Argentine.

I was not surprised to see how many books under 200 pages I own. I could easily have added another 20 or 40. I’ve always had a preference for shorter novels.

On to the books:

Tarjei Vesaas – Spring Night (1964, Norway). Vesaas is a Norwegian author whose books won many prizes. He was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1964, 1968, and 1969. The book tells the story of one nigt in the life of Sissel and her brother Olaf. They are alone on their parents farm when a strange family whose car has broken down, descends on them.

Luise Rinser – Septembertag (1967, Germany). Luise Rinser is very famous and highly acclaimed in Germany, but not many of her books have been translated. Septembertag – A Day in September – is creative nonfiction. It’s the account of one day. At the time she was living in Rome. I wish more of her books had been translated. I’ve never read anything by her that wasn’t profound and poetic.

Wlodzimierz Odojewski When the Circus Arrived (2000, Poland) Polish author Wlodzimierz Odojewski’s book is another one that hasn’t been translated. The book contains two novellas. I’ve read an excerpt of one and was stunned. The way history is blended into the narrative was masterful.

Banana Yoshimoto – Asleep (1992, Japan) The book contains two novellas. Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers, so I’m looking forward to return to her. In the blurb the stories are called “nostalgic, exquisitely sad, and delicate like gossamer”. Sounds promising.

Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleu (2012, Belgium) Amélie Nothomb is a Belgian writer, writing in French. She was born in Kobe and spent her first years in Japan. I’ve only read one of Nothomb’s novels and wasn’t so keen on it. I found it a bit cold and aseptic. But when I saw this book I had to get it because I’m fascinated by Blue Beard. Many authors, like Margaret Atwood, have been inspired by Blue Beard. I’m very curious to see what she made of it. I’m not sure this has been translated but usually all of her books are.

Patrick Modiano – L’horizon – Horizon (2010, France)  This is only one of a few Modiano novels I have on my piles. He’s another author whose every book I used to read until I needed a pause. As much as I appreciate and love him, he can be a bit repetitive at times. But it’s time to get back to him. Like in most of his novels, he blends history and memory in L’horizon. His characters are always looking for lost time. I was so glad when I discovered he’d won the Nobel Prize.

Alice Hoffman – Nightbird (2015, US) Alice Hoffman’s latest novel is a YA novel. I’ve only read her books for adults so far. This is the story of a family secret. “A gorgeously bewitching tale of magic love and stretching your wings,” says the blurb.

Margaret Atwood – The Penelopiad (2005, Canada) I’ve had this for so many years, it’s about time I read it. The retelling of the story of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, in form of a chorus of voices. It’s a technique I find highly fascinating.

Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending (2011, UK) I’m late for this one. I think it would be easier to name the bloggers who haven’t read it than those who have. I’m particularly interested in the ending of the novel because it has generated such a controversy.

Mary Robison – One D.O.A. One on the Way ( 2009, US) The story is set in New Orleans and told in vignettes. Mary Robison is famous for being unpredictable. I’ve only read her short stories and was impressed. I’m sure this will be just as amazing.

Kim Young-Ha – I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (2011 ?, Korea) This book is said to blend art and reality. Critics call Korean writer Young-Ha urban and edgy.  Many of  his novels have been translated into English. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself  tells, among other things, the story of a love triangle.

Kristina Carlson – Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009, Finland) Finnish author Kristina Carlson’s novel is a historical novel, set in Kent in 1870 and tells the story of Darwin’s gardener, Thomas Davies, a grief-stricken widower who has lost his faith.

Toni Morrison – Home (2012, US) I have read two of Morrison’s books so far and while I liked and admired Beloved I didn’t get along with Jazz. Home is her latest and, according to the reviews I read, her most readable. The story begins with a letter from a woman the protagonist has never met. “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry”. Sounds intriguing. I liked the idea that it explores the meaning of “home”. I often wonder myself.

Simenon – La Chambre Bleue – The Blue Room (1963, Belgium) This is one of Simenon’s romans durs – not one of his Maigret novels. It says on the cover: “Simenon’s gripping novel about lives transformed by deceit and the destructive power of lust.” It’s just been made into a movie.

Stewart O’Nan – The Odds (2012, US) Another favorite writer. It’s the story of a weekend. “A tender, bitter-sweet exploration of faith, forgiveness, and last chances.”

Italo Calvino – The Invisible Cities (1972, Italy) Italo Calvino was an Italian writer. The Invisible Cities is a series of short and very short fiction blending history, realism and fantasy. Calvino called the book “a love letter to the city”.

Adolfo Bioy Casares – The Invention of Morel (1964, Argentina) A fantastic exploration of virtual realities that Borges compared to The Turn of the Screw. An Argentinian classic.

Renata Adler – Speedboat (1971, US) Another experimental novel. The blurb says: It has been more than thirty-five years since Renata Adler’s Speedboat charged through the literary establishment, blasting genre walls and pointing the way for a newly liberated way of writing. This unclassifiable work is simultaneously novel, memoir, commonplace book, confession, and critique. It is the story of every man and woman cursed with too much consciousness and too little comprehension, and it is the story of Jen Fein, a journalist negotiating the fraught landscape of contemporary urban America. Her voice is cuttingly perceptive, darkly funny, and always fiercely intelligent as she breaks narrative convention to send dispatches back from the world as she finds it.

Jenny Offill – Dept. of Speculation (2014, US) This got much praise when it came out last year. It was called one of the most unusual books by many. “Written with the dazzling lucidity of poetry, Dept. of Speculation navigates the jagged edges of modern marriage to tell a story that is darkly funny, surprising and wise.” From the book: “They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.”

Sadegh Hedayat – The Blind Owl (1957, Iran) Possibly Iran’s most famous novel. Hedayat has been compared to Kafka and Chekhov. The novel has been forbidden for decades. I’m a bit wary because it’s said to be so depressing. It has even led to a wave of suicides. But it’s said to be as beautiful and poignant and the despair it describes is one most humans face at some point. “A haunting tale of loss and spiritual degradation.”

*****

I think those books will keep me busy this summer. What about you? Do you have summer reading plans?

If you like, you can join me in the 20 under 200 project and join, at the same time, Eva’s or Cathy’s projects.