Sunday 3 May 2015

Department of Speculation

'Dept. of Speculation' by Jenny Offill is one of those books that you drift through in some quiet reverie. It leads you to random musings about your own experiences and feelings, and when you get to the end you simply wander back into your own life.

"I liked my apartment because all of the windows were at street level. In the summer, I could see people's shoes, and in the winter, snow. Once, as I lay in bed, a bright red sun appeared in the window. it bounced from side to side, then became a ball." (p.6)

It tells a vague story about a couple, from their initial romance to the breakdown of their marriage. Love is made up of the little snippets of life that you have shared, memories you have in common. The story is composed of snippets. It jumps, without apology from thought to thought, image to image. The whole is chopped up into physical snippets too, each thought getting a little paragraph to itself, some a line long, some covering half a page or so. It is a kind of literary jigsaw puzzle that you put together as you read.

"My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera used to lick his stamps for him." (p.8)

The narrator has a philosopher friend who appears throughout, as confidante and advisor. The couple conceive and lose a baby. Then their daughter arrives, and takes over their lives. They are as overwhelmed by her as she is by them:

"The baby's eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she'd stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she'd washed up on." (p.23)

The daughter's infancy is raced through but our narrator continues to feel incompetent as a parent, unable to keep up with the organisational demands of kindergarten. 

"There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor and then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have  button. In all other respects, my nights are the same." (p.43)

Intense tiny moments are what create the bond between them:

"Hard to believe I used to think love was such a fragile business. Once when he was still young, i saw a bit of his scalp showing through his hair and I was afraid. But it was just a cowlick. Now sometimes it shows through for real, but I feel only tenderness." (p.79)

Abruptly, without warning, in the middle of the book, and I had not registered it until the second reading, the book changes from first to third person. 

"The wife goes to yoga now. Just to shut everyone up. She goes to it in a neighbourhood where she does not live and has never lived. She takes the class meant for old and sick people but can still hardly do any of it. Sometimes she just stands and looks out of the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to take yoga live."

After this they have a lot of "vicious whisper-fights", out of hearing of their daughter. The wife has an ex-boyfriend who reappears and tries to insinuate himself. We follow her thoughts as she try to work out what to do next, and what she wants. 

"The wife has never not wanted to be married to him. This sounds false but it is true.

She wanted to sleep with other people, of course. One or two in particular. But the truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn't dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue." (p.140)

Eventually they move away, to the sister's house in the country, get a dog. 

"Sometimes the husband says he is going to look for kindling. But later the wife sees him chain-smoking at the edge of the far field.

Sometimes she still thinks about the ex-boyfriend, but she does not hunt for him in the ether."  (p.168)

On the final page the story returns to first person.

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