Monday, November 25, 2013

A Review of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

I read basically the entire novel.1

I tried to read it in a single sitting, but my wife kept yelling at me.2

I kept getting lost in the index.3

It's pithy. Very pithy. Maybe too damn pithy.4

It's a novel about a writer who wants to write a novel.5

It is very much about how it feels to have bedbugs.6

It's as compact and mysterious as a charred heel bone.7

It's as if Roz Chast slowly lost her sense of humor.8

If your average book is a sandwich, this is a panini maker.9

Michael May



1. My favorite review of Dept. of Speculation was written by Cameron on Goodreads: "I underlined basically the entire novel."

2. The publisher's synopsis says, "Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation can be read in a single sitting, but there are enough bracing emotional insights in these pages to fill a much longer novel." While my first reading was interrupted, I did manage to finish it the next evening. Maggie and I have been married for nineteen years, so I can relate to whisper fights, the "Little Theater of Hurt Feelings," and even hair pulling. This especially rings true:
The husband and wife whisper-fight now in the gloves-off approved way. She calls him a coward. He calls her a bitch. But still they aren’t that good at it yet. Sometimes one or the other stops in the middle and offers the other a cookie or a drink.
3. An excerpt from Dept. of Speculation, which does not have an index:
The wife is reading Civilization and Its Discontents, but she keeps getting lost in the index.

bare leg on a cold night, 40
cautious businessman, 34
guest who becomes a permanent lodger, 53
Polar expedition, ill equipped, 98
4. Dept. of Speculation is a mosaic of fun facts, quotations, and short observations. The result is concise, expressive, and a little gimmicky. I wanted to warn people to wear pithy helmets while reading the novel, but this pun has already been taken.

5. Some of the best passages in Dept. of Speculation are of the narrator reimagining events in her life as fictitious scenes in the second novel she's struggling to write. In real life, Jenny Offill's previous novel, Last Things, was published in 1999, fifteen years ago.

6. From author Dana Spiotta's advance praise: "Dept. of Speculation is ... very much about how it feels to be alive right now." Midway through the novel, the narrator's apartment is infested with bedbugs, and bedbugs have been in the news a lot, lately. Interestingly, the word "bedbugs" was removed from some versions of the publisher's descriptions of the book. Compare the cached image below to the current Amazon page:

7. From author Michael Cunningham's advance praise: "Dept. of Speculation is ... as compact and mysterious as a neutron." In the novel, the narrator describes how Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov was killed when his space capsule plummeted to Earth in 1967, and that since his body was unrecoverable, all his widow ended up with was his charred heel bone.

8. This excerpt from Dept. of Speculation reminds me of Roz Chast's neurotic New Yorker cartoons:
The longer she sits [on the toilet] the more she notices how dingy and dirty the bathroom is. There is a tangle of hair on the the side of the sink, some kind of creeping mildew on the shower curtain. Their towels are no longer white and are fraying along the edges. Her underwear too is dinged nearly gray. The elastic is coming out a little. Who would wear such a thing? What kind of repulsive creature?
Roz Chast and Jenny Offill share a similar sense of humor, they are both Brooklynites, and they've both written children's books. But unlike Chast's cartoons, bemusement succumbs to fell rage and black despair in Offill's Dept. of Speculation. On a happier note, Roz Chast has a new memoir coming out in May 2014, Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?.

9. According to the New York Times Media Decoder blog, Jenny Offill's agent Sally Wofford-Girand described Dept. of Speculation this way: "If your average book is a body, this is an X-ray." The literati must have agreed; more than eight publishing houses bid on it and a two-book deal was reportedly made for about $500,000. Dept. of Speculation is being published by Knopf on January 28, 2014. It does not have footnotes.

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