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.
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...
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 (752 words).
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."
One 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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