As Jenny Offill writes sardonically in Dept. of Speculation, “wives have requirements too, of course,” including “unswerving obedience.” So when my wife, A.M.B., recommended I read the same book that I had seen make her both laugh out loud and gaze silently into the distance, well, I did as I was told. And I was glad: Dept. of Speculation was poignant, funny, and concise.
“Concise” isn’t a word you hear used much these days to compliment novels, given the long-standing trend in modern literature to equate a book’s merit with the endurance required of the reader. (NPR says Jonathan Franzen’s newest book “is likely to be something of a sprawl,” which is enough to keep me from punishing myself with it like I did his last two books.) When Offill wants to quote an aphorism from Rilke, Hesiod, or Keats, or a book about marriage from 1896, she doesn’t waste space inventing some silly, unbelieveable conversation among the characters in which to do it. She just quotes them and moves on.
To be honest, I did not find the book “demanding” nor “disparate and disconnected,” as two glowing reviews described it. I thought it was straight-forward and genuine, a far more accurate depiction of the protagonist’s inner world than is typically found in a “sprawling” work of literature. Life is lived in the immediate present as a sprawl, but a person’s emotional life — particularly when they are in turmoil — is usually more a series of piercing vignettes and ruminating spirals, each so powerful and confused and contradictory that they are typically indescribable.
Offill’s gift is the ability to capture those moments in clear, compelling prose. Consider this standalone passage in the book:
I have lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in years. She orders things I’ve never heard of, sends back a piece of middling fish. I tell her various schemes to redeem my life. “I’m so compromised,” she says.
In a typical work of literature, that same scene would have absorbed a dozen pages to communicate the same message, but in Offill’s hands it comes out just the way it would in a person’s memory, as a vague sense of economic insecurity (“She orders things I’ve never heard of”) and a recognition of her friend’s entitlement (“sends back a piece of middling fish”) followed by her friend’s apparent lack of useful guidance and the depressing, self-absorbed response of “I’m so compromised.” Everything you needed to know — everything that you would have remembered — in four sentences.
As A.M.B. said, “The wife’s observations about motherhood and marriage are honest and compelling.” But there’s another lurking theme in the book that warrants attention, and which I hope will give it additional staying power for the future: the sharp decline in happiness and optimism that seems to plague people in their mid-to-late thirties these days.
There’s a well-known sociological trend for happiness to decline in people’s 40s and 50s — often called the “midlife crisis,” as detailed at length by The Atlantic not too long ago — but, in my observation, that professional and personal malaise seems to be affecting people as early as their mid-thirties, much as it affects the late-thirties couple of Dept. of Speculation. Offill demonstrates this same problem just as well as she demonstrates the challenges of motherhood and marriage, and I hope other readers and critics won’t dismiss that as a side-effect of their personal life. As I read the book, the issues are all tied together, for both the wife and the husband.
It’s an excellent book and an excellent recommendation from A.M.B. I’m grateful she did not heed the advice of that 1896 marriage guide, to wit: “The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject.”
Three things from A.M.B: