Summary and book reviews of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

By Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Hardcover: Jan 2014,
    192 pages.
    Paperback: 7 Oct 2014,
    192 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky

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About this Book

Book Summary

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

Jenny Offill's heroine, referred to in these pages as simply "the wife," once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes - a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions - the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation is a novel to be devoured in a single sitting, though its bracing emotional insights and piercing meditations on despair and love will linger long after the last page.

Excerpt
Dept. of Speculation

There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.

The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.

Blue jays spend every Friday with the devil, the old lady at the park told me.

"You need to get out of that stupid city," my sister said. "Get some fresh air." Four years ago, she and her husband left. They moved to Pennsylvania to an old ramshackle house on the Delaware River. Last spring, she came to visit me with her kids. We went to the park; we went to the zoo; we went to the planetarium. But still they hated it. Why is...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. This novel is written in a fragmentary, elliptical style. Why do you think it is structured this way?

  2. How would the story change if it were told in a more straightforward fashion?

  3. The epigraph for the novel is a quote from Socrates: "Speculators on the universe are . . . no better than madmen." Where else in the book does the narrator talk about madness?

  4. Is this a book about loneliness?

  5. Have you ever known an art monster? Have you ever been one?

  6. On pages 43 and 44, the narrator includes a "Personality Questionnaire." What phobias or fears would you include if you wrote your own?

  7. The narrator says, "I would give it up for her . . . but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she was eighteen." What do you ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Offill’s greatest strength is the element of surprise in her humor. There’s no mallet to the head in its presentation. It sneaks up and pounces gracefully, such as when the professor decides, in the middle of the night, that maybe she can get out of ghostwriting for the failed astronaut if she writes fortune cookies. She writes down four fortunes, the first of which is "Objects create happiness," and the last of which is, "Death will not touch you." And there is a moment while raising her daughter, when she has something to say about the phrase “sleeping like a baby,” that is worth waiting for. There are many of these scenes in Dept. of Speculation.   (Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky).

Full Review Members Only (1258 words).

Media Reviews
Vogue

Piercingly honest . . . A series of wry vignettes that deepen movingly.

The Atlantic

Dept. of Speculation reveals a raw marital reality that continues to be expunged from the pervasive narrative of marriage . . . From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers.

The New York Times Book Review

Dept. of Speculation charts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose . . . Moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hilarious, poignant . . . So beautifully written that it begs multiple reads . . . Soul-bearing fiction at its best . . . Dept. of Speculation doesn't just resign itself to the disappointment of failed dreams that crop up in middle age. Instead, endurance to the end of a crisis generates wisdom, hope, and, perhaps, even art.

Los Angeles Times

Riveting . . . Unsentimental . . . Combines eclectic minutia with a laser-like narrative of a family on the edge of dissolution . . . Paragraphs shatter, surreal details rise up and into the narrative . . . A jewel of a book, a novel as funny, honest, and beguiling as any I have read.

Boston Globe

A book so radiant, so sparkling with sunlight and sorrow, that it almost makes a person gasp.

Library Journal

Exquisitely honed and vibrant...The reader easily identifies with [the narrator's] struggles and frustrations... An enlightened choice for a reading group.

Kirkus Reviews

There are moments of literary experimentation worthy of Virginia Woolf here, but in the end, this reads more like notes for a novel than a novel itself.

Booklist

A magnetic novel about a marriage of giddy bliss and stratospheric anxiety, bedrock alliance and wrenching tectonic shifts . . . So precisely articulate that [Offill's] perfect, simple sentences vibrate like violin strings.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises... Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it's her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read.

Author Blurb Michael Cunningham
If I tell you that it's funny, and moving, and true; that it's as compact and mysterious as a neutron; that it tells a profound story of love and parenthood while invoking (among others) Keats, Kafka, Einstein, Russian cosmonauts, and advice for the housewife of 1896, will you please simply believe me, and read it?

Author Blurb Sam Lipsyte
Dept. of Speculation is gorgeous, funny, a profound and profoundly moving work of art. Jenny Offill is a master of form and feeling, and she gets life on the page in new, startling ways.

Author Blurb Lydia Millet
"A heartbreaking and exceptional book by a writer who doesn't settle for less - I've been longing for a new novel from Jenny Offill since her stunning Last Things, and it was worth every bit of the wait.

Author Blurb Dana Spiotta
Jenny Offill perfectly captures the absurdities and ironies of our moment.

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A Glimpse at a Few Former Astronauts

Before we learn that the professor in Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation has been hired by a rich, failed astronaut to ghostwrite a book about the space program, she observes her baby daughter laughing at seeing the garden hose turn on. She writes in reaction, "All my life now appears to be one happy moment. This is what the first man in space said."

Yuri GagarinOne happy moment – said by Yuri Gagarin, that first man in space. It could also be said by the many other astronauts who have been part of various space programs that have launched them into distances most of us can only imagine; that most of us look at in ...

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