Jenny Offill’s second novel was one of 2014’s indie successes: touted as philosophical, soulful, poetic, bleak and funny, it’s been chalking up adulation from the hipster literati since last March, and so, finally, we thought we better give it a whirl before the paperback appears – lest they rescind our Cool Reviewer badges, natch. Anyway: a book about marriage and parenthood and familial crisis, with a dollop of good old existential crisis to thicken the emotional stew? Well, really, who hasn’t been there? Who can’t appreciate the angst? Plus, we’re fans of Granta: they get the balance between experimentation and (to get all Stella Remington on it) readability spot on, most of the time. All right, you’re saying, so…?
So, it’s pretty much what we expected: short, aphoristic, bleak, self-referential and –deprecating, and, yes, thankfully, funny to boot. The narrator’s a writer; she’s between books, having a hell of a time with her husband, struggling to acclimatize to parenthood. The text is presented as a series of fragments – memories, observations – that are linked, sure, because it’s all plotted (it’s not quite The Unfortunates), but they’re also stand-alone, insofar as they’re each individually comprehensible descriptions, brief exchanges, anecdotes or quotations. The result is you could probably read it either really quickly – we’re looking at fewer than two hundred pages here, each one consisting largely of white space – or really slowly, letting the implications of each self-contained vignette spool out before you head pell-mell into the next one. ‘Memories’, the narrator tells us at the start, are ‘tiny particles that swarm together and apart’, and whether you’d rather approach Dept. of Speculation as a rapid-fire blast of pared-down reality or as an explosion of expansive thoughts, well, that’s your call. Also, though, the whole together/apart business sets the tone for the book’s overall theme: are we better together, paired up, with all a relationship’s attendant disillusionments, fears and betrayals, or apart, alone, trying to fulfill our individual potentials for selfish glory, trying to become ‘art monsters’? The narrator’s plumped for the former, of course, and her consequent crises take the form, firstly, of the exhausted bludgeoning of one’s life, work and expectations that is parenthood (read: motherhood), and, secondly, of the implosion of her marriage after her husband has an affair. How do you survive both the chronic exhaustion and bewilderment of rearing a baby and the dissolution of trust brought about by infidelity? Do you run – belatedly become that art monster – or do you fight? And how, in the meantime, do you write? ‘I must have missed your second book’, remarks an old acquaintance of the narrator’s, and she’s forced to admit that there hasn’t yet been one. As a study of creative production under the real-life conditions of making both a living and a family, this book’s excellent: the narrator’s ghost-writing a crazy memoir and her husband, an experimental musician, is writing commercial music; they have to ditch his piano after their apartment gets infested. And as a study of parenthood it’s even better: I’d do anything for my daughter, thinks the narrator, if only she’d sleep quietly until she hits eighteen.
It’s scathing, then, and courageously accurate; it doesn’t hesitate to chew over the least attractive parts of intimate life, the hatreds and resentments that seethe in us, in the name of devotion. It’s funny, credible and depressing, and also full of love – for spouses, siblings, friend, art and above all, for children. A right convoluted tangle, then, and you’re asking if it’s worth the hype? Well, as a read, if you’re not put off by the unconventional structure – and you shouldn’t be – it is, sure. It’s memorable and clever and heartfelt. But it’s also not quite the freewheeling experimental firework we were expecting: if you’ve read Renata Adler’s Speedboat – and if you’re considering Dept. of Speculation at all, we’re thinking you’ll be a conscientious enough literary hipster to have also leapt (like we did) on that particular bandwagon – then you’ll be in very familiar territory, style-wise. We reckon Adler has the edge, but certainly, if you like one, you’ll love the other, and ditto, Joe Brainard fans, and, hell, let’s throw Lydia Davis into the mix while we’re here. Offill’s working in a tradition, is the point here, but it’s a good tradition, an overlooked tradition and an effective one, and good luck to her: even if it’s not ploughing an entirely new furrow, this book is still bucking against formal convention.
Any Cop?: As novels go, this is the anti-Franzen: snappy, thought-provoking, deeply intelligent – an anti-crowd-pleaser that still ought to please quite a lot of the crowds.