There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 52 weeks in a year and X years in a life. Solve for X.
Wake up. Fill the hours with whatever needs to be done. Sleep. The filling is up to us. Sometimes it's wondrous, but many times a week, it can be mundane - lines to wait in, bills to pay, problems to deal with that might seem unique to us, but really aren't that unique. We're just one of thousands hundreds of thousands millions.
Some stand-up comedians make a good living observing the mundane details of daily life. From their observations come the laughter of recognition, but then we move on, back to our daily lives, perhaps not thinking any further about what we have read or watched because hey, we've got stuff to do.
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill's second novel, is a story about the marriage between a professor and writer from Savannah, Georgia and an all-around good-guy from Ohio who records city soundscapes. Offill's observations of their daily life in Brooklyn are like those of the comedians and humorists, but to her credit, it is not easy to simply move on after reading them. She knows what details to focus on, and knows, especially, how long to linger. The sounds contained in the husband's soundscapes are a good example of this, as is the professor's persistent cough that suddenly let up when she got married. We also see it in the parts of the story about the job she has to take, ghostwriting a book about the space program for a rich, failed astronaut. Through quotes from the first man in space, a disastrous Cosmonaut mission, and much more, we get to experience the oft-times humorous details of mundane life that connect us all. Offill explores these moments fully, such as the professor's admission that she's bad at shopping at the grocery store, bringing home butterscotch pudding, toothpicks, and whiskey sour mix instead of toilet paper, ketchup and garlic; or going to the dentist and having to deal with the hygienist. Although this last example is a typical subject of jokes, Offill doesn't only make us laugh; she also asks us to really think about our own experiences at the dentist, and everywhere else.
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.
Offill's skillful and, at times, poetic observations of the lives and shaky marriage of the professor and her husband which includes the professor's sister, her psychiatrist, and the couple's Italian babysitter in brief moments build up to the most powerful moment of this slim novel. The professor stands on the subway platform, imagining a time when her daughter was still in her arms, and the next page is devoted entirely to her daughter's ramblings, all in italics. In the last quarter of her energetic monologue is this: "May came home with a smooth round stone as small as the world and as big as alone."
The honesty of children can take the wind out of you, because out of the mouths of babes comes the painful truth. As small as the world and as big as alone. This is so very true in our lives. It's the literary equivalent of going to the 108th-floor observation deck of the Stratosphere tower in Las Vegas, looking down at the city and across to Henderson and the other parts of the valley. You laugh first at how tiny the cars and the surrounding motel pools are, just like laughing at many of the incisive observations that Offill offers. And then you're struck silent by how positively enormous the world actually is, how small we truly are, and you are left wondering what exactly we're doing here. Offill does so much with this, leaving us satisfied and exhausted, full of questions about our own lives.
This review was originally published in February 2014, and has been updated for the October 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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