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Dept. of Speculation
Cover of Dept. of Speculation
Dept. of Speculation
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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 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.
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Excerpts-
  • From the cover 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 everyone yelling here?

    *     *     *

    He is famously kind, my husband. Always sending money to those afflicted with obscure diseases or shoveling the walk of the crazy neighbor or helloing the fat girl at Rite Aid. He’s from Ohio. This means he never forgets to thank the bus driver or pushes in front at the baggage claim. Nor does he keep a list of those who infuriate him on a given day. People mean well. That is what he believes. How then is he married to me? I hate often and easily. I hate, for example, people who sit with their legs splayed. People who claim to give 110 percent. People who call themselves “comfortable” when what they mean is decadently rich. You’re so judgmental, my shrink tells me, and I cry all the way home, thinking of it.

    Later, I am talking on the phone to my sister. I walk outside with the baby on my shoulders. She reaches out, puts something in her mouth, and chokes on it. “Hold her upside down!” my sister yells. “Whack her hard on the back!” And I do until the leaf, green, still beautiful, comes out in my hand.

    I develop an abiding interest in emergency precautions. I try to enlist my husband’s help in this. I ask him to carry a pocketknife and a small flashlight in his backpack. Ideally, I’d like him to have one of those smoke hoods that doubles as a parachute. (If you are rich and scared enough you can buy one of these, I have read.) He thinks I have a morbid imagination. Nothing’s going to happen, he says. But I want him to make promises. I want him to promise that if something happens he won’t try to save people, that he’ll just get home as fast as he can. He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it. Leave behind the office girl and the old lady and the fat man wheezing on the stairs. Come home, I tell him. Save her.

    A few days later the baby sees the garden hose come on and we hear her laughing.

    All my life now appears to be one happy moment
    . This is what the first man in space said.

    Later, when it’s time to go to bed, she puts both legs in one side of her footy pajamas and slyly waits for us to notice.

    There is a picture of my mother holding me as a baby, a look of naked love on her face. For years, it embarrassed me. Now there is a picture of me with my daughter looking exactly the same way.

    We dance with the baby every night now, spinning her round and round the kitchen. Dizzying, this happiness.

    She becomes obsessed with balls. She can spot a ball-shaped object at one hundred paces.Ball, she calls the...
About the Author-
  • Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, which was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Book Award. She teaches in the writing programs at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Jenny Offill fulfills the roles of both author and narrator in this portrait of love and marriage. The chapters of her novel move quickly, flitting from topic to topic in a stream rather than a simple narration. She narrates evenly, though her words seem clipped. Though at first a little disconcerting, her approach fits her story perfectly. As "the wife" (as the story's protagonist is called) offers her story of courtship, marriage, motherhood, infidelity, and recovery, Offill's reading pulls the listener into her world and captures her experiences and emotions. At just over three hours, this is a quick listen--but a moving and memorable one. E.N. © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from November 25, 2013
    Popping prose and touching vignettes of marriage and motherhood fill Offill’s (Last Things) slim second book of fiction. 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. The 46 short chapters are told mostly in brief fragments and fly through the life of the nameless heroine. Her mind wanders from everyday tasks and struggles, the beginnings of her marriage, the highs and lows with her husband, the joys of having a daughter. These domestic bits are contrasted by far-flung thoughts that whirl in every direction, from space aviation and sea exploration to ancient philosophy and Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics. Anecdotes and quotes also come from all over: Einstein, Eliot, Keats, Rilke, Wittgenstein, Darwin, and Carl Sagan. Often, the use of third person places the heroine at a distance, examining the macro-reality of her life, but then Offill will zoom in, giving the reader a view into her heroine’s inner life—notes, graded papers and corrected manuscripts, monologues, imagined Christmas cards and questionnaires. Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it’s her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read: “Just after she turns five my daughter starts making confessions to me. It seems she is noticing her thoughts as thoughts for the first time and wants absolution.... I thought of stepping on her foot, but I didn’t. I tried to make her a little bit jealous. I pretended to be mad at him. ‘Everybody has bad thoughts,’ I tell her. ‘Just try not to act on them.’ ”

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