Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Jenny Offill, _Dept. of Speculation_

I HOPE THIS novel is not as autobiographical as one suspects it must be, since just reading it hurts, and living it would be like having every bone broken. But it is an extraordinarily fine book.

The plot is relatively simple. Married couple (he composes music, she writes and teaches) lives in New York City with one young daughter. The husband--otherwise decent, intelligent, even kindly--has an affair.  The wife, our p.o.v. character finds out. They try to mend things, go into counseling, even move to a new town. By the end of the book, they have made some progress.

Sounds like a 350-page package of realistic literary fiction of a fairly ordinary kind, doesn't it? But what we have here is a little more like David Markson or Renata Adler, 177 pages of quick glimpses, sometimes only a sentence or two long, of what the wife sees, hears, does, thinks, writes, feels. For example--to makes end meet, the wife agrees to be the ghost writer of a vanity publishing project, a book about the space program "by" a man who came close to going into space:

A few weeks later, the almost astronaut calls me to tell me that Voyager 2 may be nearing the edge of our galaxy. "Perfect timing," he says. "We'll tie it into marketing."

That's the whole passage. For conveying the particular discombobulation of depending on the exasperating delusions of others for our income, though, one needs no more. The would-be author's faith that the world is still curious about a space probe launched in 1977 or occurrences on the edge of the galaxy makes a perfect analogue to his belief that the world is waiting to hear what he and only he has to say about NASA. But is there any way to bring that up when he is the one writing those checks?

Offill is equally laconic about the traumatized marriage, sometimes devastatingly:

That night, the wife gets up and goes to sleep in her daughter's room.  If he asks, she can lie and say she called for her.

Did he ask? Well, maybe. But we know the crucial thing when we take in her preparing a lie.

Way back in the 1920s, Virginia Woolf asked in the essay "Modern Fiction" whether the novel really needed all the baggage that seemed indispensable to its Edwardian incarnation--the descriptions of clothes and furniture, the trundling of characters from place to place, the long ponderings over marital or career choices, everything that seemed necessary to create the impression of actual life. If you abstracted all that out, she wondered, would you still have a novel?  Then, in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, she showed that yes, you would.

Offill does without all kinds of connective tissue, scene-setting, explanation of motives, dialogue, even proper names, does without any number of things that seem as indispensable to the novel as flour is to bread, and somehow still has a novel, a story about people that seem so real you could touch them, undergoing a pain that almost seems yours. Even the minor characters--the almost astronaut, the daughter, the creative writing student who attempts suicide--have a distinctness and presence that most writers could not approach achieving, even while deploying all the devices Offill has left unexercised.

I noticed that Adler's Speedboat, though published in 1976, got a spot in  The Believer magazine's readers' poll of the best novels of 2013, an annual list in which I do not recall having previously spotted a reprint.  What does that mean?  I myself think it is good news. And Dept. of Speculation, with all its almost unbearable heartache, is even better news. The novel is dead; long live the novel!

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