Dept. of Speculation: Jenny Offill/Reflections

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Among the writer friends whose recommendations I instantly trust is Katrina Kenison, whose memoirs have inspired countless readers and whose many years as both an editor of books and the series editor of Best American Short Stories refined, or perhaps announced, her exquisite readerly sensitivities.

One day before I left for Alaska, Katrina wrote me a note including this line:  Have you read Dept. of Speculation?  That's my latest favorite.  Also very short, but oh, piercing.  

So of course I ordered Jenny Offill's newest novel at once. I read it before the plane left the ground.

Forty-six chapters in 175 pages. A Carole Maso, Kathryn Harrison, or Cynthia Reeves like intensity. A woman broken and her story broken and each brief paragraph like a scream from the deep dark of a well. Help me. A late-in-the-game inversion of point of view that knocks the reader around and carries the story to an even higher plane.

Our narrator is a woman who half loved, then loved, then married, then had a baby with swirls of hair on the back of her head, then watched that marriage fall apart. Our narrator is a woman who is trying, before our very eyes, to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well. Our woman is so stunned by the cruel possibilities of life that she can barely speak more than a few sentences at once.

Example of a single paragraph, cordoned off by white space:

A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.

Example of another single paragraph:

Sometimes she will come in complaining about seeing things when she closes her eyes at night. Streaks of light, she says. Stars.
It's like this, in Dept. of Speculation. It's harrowing and brave and (to my way of seeing) deliciously odd. It feels uncalculated (though of course it isn't) and raw (though a book like this takes extraordinary refinement and planning). It feels alive and desperate and worried through, and don't we all have times like these, and doesn't that make this fiction true?

Yesterday I wrote of a long book of many chapters—the fantastic Anthony Doerr. Today I wrote of a short book of many chapters—the brave and talented Jenny Offill. Tomorrow, here, I will write of a more ordinary book, one that I didn't read breathlessly during my time away. 

What do we have as readers? We have choices. Is there anything sweeter than that?



Katrina said...

Oh, I'm so glad you feel the same way about this magnificent little novel, which of course is not small at all in the ways that matter. Doerr is next on my list. Thank you for a stunning review that goes a long way toward explaining why I keep returning to Jenny Offill's work in my mind.

Serena said...

This sounds wonderful!

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