|Jenny Offill |
Photograph by Nicolas Latimer
Dept. of Speculation review – intense vignettes of domestic life
Friday 14 March 2014 09.00 GMT
A book this sad shouldn't be so much fun to read. But contradictions are what you might expect from an author whose first novel was called Last Things. Fifteen years later, this is her second, and it was worth the wait. Dept. of Speculation is a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity and sweetness.
There aren't many characters, and no one is named: there is the husband, their daughter and a few acquaintances. The story is told in fragments, like memories that float in when you're trying to think about other things. "Memories are microscopic," the woman says. "Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them." Her thoughts and recollections have an aphoristic neatness to them, enhanced by the way each paragraph is set alone on the page, white space above and below. They are like your cleverest friend's Facebook updates. She describes how an ex-boyfriend appears on her doorstep. "He seemed to have come all the way from San Francisco just to have coffee. On the way to the diner, he apologised for never really loving me. He hoped to make amends. 'Wait,' I said. 'Are you doing the steps?'"
There is a risk in charming the reader early on like this – unless you can keep it up. Jenny Offill can keep it up: almost every one of these vignettes is interesting and perfectly put. Because they come to the woman's mind unbidden, they are often stripped of context, making the reader work to find out what is happening. Elsewhere, we learn details only as she does, giving moments of surprise and joy. Her mother tells her to "whack" her choking baby on the back – choking on what? – "and I do until the leaf, green, still beautiful, comes out in my hand".
Offill is particularly strong on the strangeness of parenthood, as a time when the years roar by but the days within them can drag. "What did you do today, you'd say when you got home from work and I'd try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing." We learn that she never intended to be a mother, nor a wife: she wanted to be an art monster. "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." The closest she gets to being an art monster is to ghostwrite a memoir for a businessman who almost became an astronaut. She sums up how their lives differ in a few words. "He made a fortune selling bug zappers. Last year, I got one as a Christmas present."
Sharp as all this is ("Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I'd say"), it would seem limited if there weren't texture added by the shadows beneath the sunshine. The woman is unforgiving of herself, persecuted by thoughts of her own inadequacy as a wife, as a mother, in her job as a teacher. "There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it." And a crisis takes hold in the story, gradually and then suddenly, which is reflected by a shift in the narrative angle, as the woman increases her distance from her family and from herself. Her distracted state is reflected in the book's skittish structure. Dept. of Speculation is a shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don't quite understand, until they give in and read it too.
• John Self blogs at The Asylum