Bob Moyer takes a look at a novel that’s small in size but big in scope.
Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer
DEPT. OF SPECULATION. By Jenny Offill. Alfred A. Knopf. 177 pages. $22.95.
This concise, evocative novel (readable in one sitting) takes the reader on a roller coaster ride through that treacherous theme park known as Love and Marriage. All the major attractions appear in these pages: First Blush, when the lovers write notes labeled Dept. of Speculation; Wonderment, when the narrator, “the wife,” lies awake listening to him breathe; Parenthood, as they cope with a colicky baby; Stalled Career, “the wife” unable to finish that second novel while maintaining a household; and then that deep, breathtaking descent into Infidelity. All the connubial elements familiar in life and art come into sharp relief here.
For this is no pedestrian tour of the banalities of matrimony. Like the narrator, the author is a successful first novelist, a teacher of writing at a Manhattan college. Jenny Offill, however, is not stalled; she creates a protagonist with a rich intellectual life that informs almost without exception every observation, incident, dilemma she faces.
No recent book, certainly not one of this size, ranges so widely with so many references to so many subjects. Chapter 22, for instance, starts off with the phrase “soscared” repeated 90 times. After two pages, we infer “the wife” is in bed with her husband, and has asked him a question about his affair. Before he answers “Easier” at the end of the chapter (we never hear the question), we are privy to only her laments, her appeal to Rilke, a quote from Ovid about lying, the rigor of Hipparchus, and the misjudgments of Thales, Anaxagoras and the royal Chinese astronomers Hi and Ho.
From the pen of a lesser talent, all this could be intellectual grandstanding, or simply too abstruse. Not here. Offill focuses each reference on the subject at hand, and places the subject in the most advantageous position to catch the light that makes the moment pop out of the narrative. Not once do her forays into poetry, philosophy et al. impede the impact of “the wife” and her family’s poignant journey, a path that ends in Pennsylvania, miles and lifetimes away from Manhattan where it all started.
One of The New York Times top five novels of 2014, Dept. of Speculation engages and improves us at once – or so it seems.
- Robert P. Moyer is a poet, actor, petanque champ, teacher and world traveler who occasionally settles down in Winston-Salem.