Book Reviews
3:43 pm
Thu January 23, 2014

'Speculation' Shows Good Stories Come In Small Packages, Too

Originally published on Fri January 24, 2014 4:32 pm

Jenny Offill's novel Dept. of Speculation, which weighs in at 192 pages soaking wet and includes a fair amount of white space, is extremely short for a novel. It's an unusual book not only in terms of its size, but also its form. Make no mistake, this is an experimental novel. By which I mean that the narrative isn't a series of flowing scenes that keep you reassuringly grounded in plot, but a collection of vignettes, observations and quirky details that are sometimes pulled from real life. Not to mention the fact that the characters, a young couple, are referred to only as "the husband" and "the wife." No names are ever used.

If all that scares you off, I should tell you: be brave. The book is absorbing and highly readable. It's also intriguing, beautifully written, sly and often profound. I loved getting a glimpse of the way a couple navigates the world and their own little terrain. The wife remarks, "The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out. A home has a perimeter. But sometimes our perimeter was breached by neighbors, by Girl Scouts, by Jehovah's Witnesses. I never liked to hear the doorbell ring. None of the people I liked ever turned up that way."

And then, two pages later, extending the theme of home and its meanings, but quietly moving into painful territory, Offill writes, " ... when we signed the lease, we were happy about the jungle gym because I'd learned that I was pregnant and we could imagine its uses. But by the time we moved in, we had found out that the baby's heart had stopped and now it just made us sad to look out the window at it."

It's kind of amazing the way a nameless character, living a life that is missing a lot of specifics, could evoke a kind of sorrowful feeling in me. The details, even though spare, drew me in, and I began to form pictures and full scenes in my mind in response to them. Maybe our minds crave story so badly that we'll just go ahead and create it out of whatever raw materials are put in front of us.

One of the dangers of writing a book in this style is that the different little stand-alone sections are inevitably pitted against one another. Some work better than others. A sudden quote from Simone Weil, "Attention without object is a supreme form of prayer," seemed a little bewildering. And a questionnaire about sparrows, a page after the revelation that the couple had lost their baby, made me want to say: let's get back to our characters now.

But there were other times when I was more willing to be taken far afield, such as in a little story about the scientist Carl Sagan's infidelity. Because, in fact, infidelity comes into play in Dept. of Speculation. The husband strays, and the ensuing drama has a held-breath suspense to it.

And the novel is often really funny. Offill refers to the Internet meme of the cat saying, "I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?" And the payoff comes later, after men are flirting with the wife, who muses to herself, "I CAN HAS BOYFRIEND?"

Offill has successfully met the challenge she seems to have given herself: write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And do it in a series of bulletins, fortune-cookie commentary, mordant observations, lyrical phrasing. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone's domestic life.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Some writers start their books with a plan. They outline their stories or they begin already knowing the last scene. We're going to hear about a book that evolved from a very different approach. Novelist Jenny Offill told Publishers Weekly that she wrote pieces of her latest book on index cards, then she shuffled them until they were in an order that she liked. The result was Offill's first novel since 1999. Author Meg Wolitzer has been reading it and she brings us this review.

MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: Jenny Offill's novel "Dept. of Speculation" weighs in at 192 pages soaking wet and has a fair amount of white space, too. That's about as short as it gets without being a pamphlet. But we've come to expect certain things from a novel. Like, you probably wouldn't take this one on an airplane because you know it wouldn't last. So you need to feel that even though you're not going to be in the world of this book for very long, it's worth it to be in it at all.

It's an unusual book in terms of form. It's written as a collection of vignettes, oddities, and quirky details. The young couple in the story are only referred to as the husband and the wife. There are no names. But if all of that stuff sounds scary, be brave. It's an absorbing and highly readable book. It's also beautifully written, sly, and often profound. Still, you have to have the patience for the piecemeal rollout of the story.

We follow this couple as they navigate the world and their own little terrain, including the most painful moments. At one point the wife tells us, when we signed the lease, we were happy about the jungle gym because I'd just learned that I was pregnant. But by the time we moved in, the baby's heart had stopped, and now it just made us sad to look out the window at it.

It's kind of amazing that a nameless narrator could evoke this kind of sorrowful feeling. Maybe our minds just crave stories so badly that we'll fill in the details out of whatever raw material is put in front of us. Of course, the danger of writing a book like this is that all the little sections will inevitably be competing with one another other, and some do work better than others. A questionnaire about sparrows just after the wife loses her baby had me thinking, give me back my couple.

But there were other times that I was more willing to be taken far afield, like a story about the scientist Carl Sagan's infidelity because, in fact, infidelity does come into play here. The husband strays and the ensuing drama has a held-breath suspense to it.

And the novel is often really funny. Offill refers to the Internet meme of the cat saying, I can has cheezburger? And the payoff comes later, after men are flirting with the wife, who muses to herself, I can has boyfriend? Offill seems to have set up a challenge for herself - write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone's domestic life.

SIEGEL: The book is "Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill. It was reviewed by Meg Wolitzer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.