Some writing is so small and dense it feels like sucking on a pebble. Lydia Davis is a master of this style: she scatters jarring little realizations like pebbles on a beach for readers to find and collect. But what if the pebbles weren’t scattered? What if they formed a distinct trail?
Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, is a collection of small prose fragments laid in a row, telling a long story that begins with a courtship and ends in a busted marriage. When I say small, I mean small. Like this:
This is another way in which he is an admirable person. If he notices something is broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.
The unnamed narrator and her husband lead a familiar type of life—New York City, careers in the arts, childbirth, adultery—but Offill finds a way to make every moment feel intensely personal and specific, like a movie voiceover by someone you instantly relate to.
How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.
Shoving aside all the predictable details of married life, the narrator fixates on whatever catches her interest, whether it’s cosmonauts, bedbugs, or Rainer Maria Rilke. The pages are full of jokes, questionnaires, obscure historical facts, and out-of-nowhere quotes from the likes of Coleridge and T.S. Eliot.
Things no one has ever said about me:
You are very mysterious.
You make it look so easy.
You need to take yourself more seriously.
Dept. of Speculation is the record of a marriage in marginalia. With remarkable ease, Offill expands her bite-size wit and pathos into something taut, daring, and immensely fun to read.
– Brian Hurley