DEPT. OF SPECULATION
By JENNY OFFILL
I’m late, and perhaps redundant, in reviewing this novel. As it was named to all the 2014 “best of” lists I read, including the New York Times top ten, I am decidedly behind the eight-ball. Nevertheless, a novel worth talking about, again and again, more for the telling than the tale.
1. Narrated by “the wife” who is never named, the story centers on her unraveling marriage to “him.” She names their one child but speaks of her largely as “she” and never uses “we” but once, a crucial once.
2. The novel is more a novella, as there are few characters and a discreet time frame, even beyond the slim 177 pages, and the story is far wider than long in its view. I recommend reading in one sitting if possible, a powerful experience.
3. The novel hardly conforms to the general format, if there is such a thing anymore. There are no traditional chapters, sections, or dialogues, rather a sequence of fragments: thoughts, impressions, memories and commentary [speculations] which often veer into the philosophical and scientific, inciting a range of historical characters from Rilke to the French physician Baraduc to Buddha.
4. Fantastically sharp prose – intuitive, existential insights worthy of contemplation:
“Baraduc claimed to be able to photograph emotions...He sought out emotionally agitated people, then held up light-proof paper a few inches from their heads. He found the same emotion would make the same kind of impression upon the photographic plate, but that different emotions produced difference images. Anger looked like fireworks. Love was an indistinct blurb.”
“How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”
Or the simplest of moments defined by a mother still struggling with her role. “But the smell of her hair. The way she clasped her hand around my fingers. This was like medicine. For once I didn’t have to think. The animal was ascendant.”
5. The novel feels more like memoir than fiction. Or like a Tao of extended aphorisms that make us pause to consider everything in our midst and every bit of our senses. This protagonist/narrator is a writer and teacher, and deep thinker, much like this new generation of wise minds who, like Offill and Rebecca Solnit, speak for their peers and also for those of us much older who remember the most painful and most tender moments of love and marriage and motherhood, and smile, because we know everything goes in cycles and time heals.
Available in hardcover but soon in paperback. And of course e-book.
Happy new year, happy reading.