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Dept. of Speculation

By Jenny Offill

Knopf

177 pages, $22.95

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Jenny Offill’s smart new novel is – at once – quirky, endearing, affecting and deep. And did I mention funny? “Dept. of Speculation” spends its days and nights perfectly navigating that Lilliputian line between comedy and tragedy.

More quilt than book, it is a pastiche of small pieces, one after the other – in a mere 7½-by-4½-inch format – comprising the rocky early years of what one hopes will be a very long marriage.

Offill herself calls the novel “maddeningly formatted” and yet a reader is rapidly drawn to its one-paragraph vignettes, sayings and poems, its quick literary references and quotes.

“Memories are microscopic,” the book’s narrator tells us. “Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space.”

So it is that the narrator, herein “the wife,” recalls her own “little people” – a complicated lot as the wife is complicated. (And we have no problem believing that her memories come from outer space.)

Hers is an intensity that is near-contagious as she lays her marriage out before us – seemingly solid at first as she regards the goodness she sees in her husband:

“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.”

Then, without taking a breath, the wife continues:

“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.”

There is a child, newborn when we meet her, causing the now-nursing wife to observe, “She’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

The child is a source of happiness – intermittently so, but loved fiercely. In no time she becomes what the wife calls “persony”:

“We decide to have a party to show off how persony she has become. For days beforehand, she asks me over and over, ‘Party now? Party now?’… On the night of the festivities … the guests stream in. She weaves her way in and out of them for five minutes, then tugs on my sleeve. ‘No more party!’ she says. ‘Party done! Party done!’”

This is before the wife knows the marriage could be “done” too – even as it is she who dwells on such thoughts as, “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.”

Only some peripheral characters have names here. The main personae have designations instead – as in the wife, the husband, the child – and the wife, as narrator, jumps about in time as well as place and from first to third person. A writer’s prerogative – as she is a writer, and also, apparently, an English teacher (as she frets over her students’ participles, dangling and otherwise).

Her kind spouse works with sound – as in scoring tracks for commercials, something he calls, “Not bad … Only vaguely soul-crushing.”

If there is discontent, it is small, and stemming from the wife’s never planning – initially – to marry or to mother until she had her writer’s sea legs under her. But love intervened, and now:

“The days with the baby felt long but there was nothing expansive about them. Caring for her required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious. They cut the day up into little scraps.”

It is into this life that comes a wicked foe – in the form of bedbugs! The creatures are everywhere, and imagined when they are not. They creep into everything including the marriage of the husband and wife, with deeper trouble to follow.

It is the deeper trouble that arrives of a sudden, so quick and unexpected that it blindsides the wife – and shows Offill at her finest, explaining the situation in a mere six words, the first three of these words questions from the wife:

“Taller?

Thinner?

Quieter?

Easier, he says.”

As the wife will muse later, “It sounds like a sitcom … But where to put the laugh track?”

Where indeed? And, if the wife is stricken, so are we – we who have come to love the complicated wife and her wonderful way of speculating on the seemingly small happenings that portend life’s largest disappointments.

Speculation is a means of communication here – “Dept. of Speculation” being the return address the husband and wife used for love letters between them in the early days of their togetherness.

Now, the wife’s agent will tell her, “every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.”

Now, then, will begin “the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings” and all that goes with it. And the wife will not turn to drugs, remembering Sartre and his visions of lobsters, brought on by hallucinogens.

Fond of Horace’s “They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea,” she will nonetheless consider a geographic solution:

“When she tells people she might move to the country, they say, ‘But aren’t you afraid you’re going to get lonely?’

“Get?”

Single words on a line, as above, are a specialty of the wife’s, as are the words of myriad great minds – words she carries within her and quotes often to herself, words of John Berryman, of Socrates, of Carl Sagan … Her interior list is eclectic, to say the least. And we are captivated.

We cannot help ourselves. We laugh, we clap, we cry with the wife. We find, in “Dept. of Speculation,” moments that take our breath away. And we recognize parts of ourselves in its pages even while asking, Is this Offill’s own story?

It’s not – but it is her first novel in 15 years, and well worth the wait, taking us, in the wife’s most distressing moments, to the point where, as the wife puts it, “there is no place that will stop her head.”

Or, as the wife will quote Kafka on all things dire: “I write to close my eyes.”

Offill, it might be said, writes to open ours.

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.