True confession: I will probably never press a copy of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation into anyone’s hot little hands. It doesn’t matter anyway. The thing landed on, like, every Best Of 2014 list in the universe, probably even half-assedly scribbled onto fast food napkins. But here’s the thing: I didn’t just love this book, I fucking loved it. I felt passionate and heart-beaty about it. I touched words on pages and sighed like they were images in a yearbook or whatever. I turned my copy into origami, what with all the dog-earing. I thought these out-of-character words so many times:
“This book is absolutely gorgeous.”
Here’s the thing with book recs: Sometimes you read something and it’s great and you just generically tell your readerly-inclined friends (or internet cruisers) that it’s got your seal. Sometimes you read something and you think, “Oh my. Know who’d love this?” And you try to explain to said person that it’s crucial they read this book, like, yesterday, all while remembering that you really, seriously, freaking hate when someone tells you to read a certain book (unless they are on a preapproved list of people who understand how and what and why you read).
Here’s the gist of Dept. of Speculation: A woman living in Brooklyn meets a man who makes soundscapes and falls in love and they get married and make a baby. It all goes against this sort of master plan she had to become an Art Monster — a rarity for women, she notes, but she would be a person who only thinks about art and is never burdened by the mundane. Nabakov, she points out, didn’t even fold his own umbrella.
There is a breach in the relationship. The man gets into it with another woman and the narrator spends a lot of time in this weird limbo of trying to figure out the status of her family. Is he in, is he out and all that.
But the story is written in these really super short paragraphs, scraps of barely vignettes, that give just enough details to what is happening. In between are fun facts about Buddhist teachings and interactions with her sister or her friend a philosopher or memories. This is, style-wise, brilliant. The writing is super concise and the words feel like they’re more honest, worth more emotional weight. There is all this white space where who-knows-what is happening and it’s, as I’ve said, so gorgeous.
I actually had this thought while reading Offill’s book, which is like this wide-open ticking wound of a story. “I can’t recommend this to anyone because they wouldn’t appreciate it because they are not me.” (If *that* doesn’t make me sound like I carry a selfie stick. . .)
I’ve come through the romantic fog. I know this wasn’t written for me. But the way she writes about her baby feels so intensely personal — in this way that those conversational What to Expect books promise to be, but are not — that I actually felt a little embarrassed because these are my secrets.
“I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger. ‘It’s for my daughter,’ I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.”
“I would give up everything for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen. If she would lie quietly with me, if I could bury my face in her hair, yes, then yes, uncle.”
Or there were lines like this:
“The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out” which I wanted to needlepoint onto a throw pillow.