Dept. of Speculation (Offill)

Dept. of Speculation 
Jenny Offill, 2014
Knopf Doubleday
192 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385350815

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship.

As they confront an array of common catastrophes—a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation is a novel to be devoured in a single sitting, though its bracing emotional insights and piercing meditations on despair and love will linger long after the last page. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Massachusetts, USA
Currently—New York, New York

Jenny Offill  is an American author of two novels. Her first, Last Things (1999), was a New York Times Notable book and a finalist for the L.A Times First Book Award. Her second, Dept. of Speculation (2014), received highly favorably reviews.

She is also the co-editor with Elissa Schappell of two anthologies of essays and is the author of several children's books. She teaches in the MFA programs at Brooklyn College, Columbia University and Queens University. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 3/19/2014.)

Book Reviews
Offill’s unnamed observant and literary minded, given to seeing the odd connections (or lack of connections) among the things that make up her day-to-day life and the more subterranean thoughts that jitter around in her head. She also has a lot in common with Joan Didion’s heroines... A genuinely moving story of love lost and perhaps, provisionally, recovered.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

[C]harts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose…Dept. of Speculation moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others…Offill is a smart writer with a canny sense of pacing; just when you want to abandon the fragmented puzzle pieces of the novel, she reveals a moment of breathtaking tenderness…Dept. of Speculation is especially engaging when it describes new motherhood—the stunned joy and loneliness and fatigue of it, the new orientation of the narrator's world around an impossibly small but demanding creature.
Roxane Gay - New York Times Book Review

Riveting.... Unsentimental.... Combines eclectic minutia with a laser-like narrative of a family on the edge of dissolution.... Paragraphs shatter, surreal details rise up and into the narrative.... A jewel of a book, a novel as funny, honest, and beguiling as any I have read.
Los Angeles Times

Hilarious, poignant.... So beautifully written that it begs multiple reads . . . Soul-bearing fiction at its best.... Dept. of Speculation doesn’t just resign itself to the disappointment of failed dreams that crop up in middle age. Instead, endurance to the end of a crisis generates wisdom, hope, and, perhaps, even art.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Marvelously huge in insight and honesty. Rich with humor, and deep with despair, Dept. of Speculation paints a masterful portrait of the nuts and the bolts and the warts and the silky splendor that defines commitment—the commitment to live in close quarters with other humans.... A quick, beautiful read that will draw out joy just as quickly as sadness, and may even cause one to pause and then wonder, and then to finally embrace both the misery and the magic of marriage.
New York Review of Books

Absorbing and highly readable.... Offill has successfully met the challenge she seems to have given herself: write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And do it in a series of bulletins, fortune-cookie commentary, mordant observations, lyrical phrasing. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone’s domestic life.... Intriguing, beautifully written, sly, and often profound.
Meg Wolitzer - NPR

Audacious.... Hilarious.... Dept. of Speculation reveals a raw marital reality that continues to be expunged from the pervasive narrative of marriage.... Offill moves quickly and poetically over deeply introspective questions about long-term partnerships, parenthood, and aging.... From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers. There is a complexity to the central partnership; Offill folds cynicism into genuine moments of love. It may be difficult to truly know what happens between two people, but Offill gets alarmingly close.

Dept. of Speculation is a startling feat of storytelling—an intense and witty meditation on motherhood, infidelity, and identity, each line a dazzling, perfectly chiseled arrowhead aimed at your heart.
Vanity Fair

Offill somehow manages to pack the sprawling story of an ordinary marriage, both the good bits and the bad, into a small, poetic book. Rendered entirely in a series of staccato vignettes, Dept. of Speculation is told from the point of view of the bookish, funny wife.... Yes, there’s joylessness here, but there’s also real joy. (Grade: A-)
Entertainment Weekly

(Starred review.) Popping prose and touching vignettes of marriage and motherhood.... Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises. The 46 short chapters are told mostly in brief fragments and fly through the life of the nameless heroine.
Publishers Weekly

Offill's lean prose and the addition of astute quotations prevent the text from becoming just one more story of an infidelity. The author's debut, Last Things, was a Los Angeles Times First Book Award finalist, noted by the New York Times; here, her writing is exquisitely honed and vibrant. This would be an enlightened choice for a reading group. —Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH
Library Journal

A magnetic novel about a marriage of giddy bliss and stratospheric anxiety, bedrock alliance and wrenching tectonic shifts.... So precisely articulate that [Offill's] perfect, simple sentences vibrate like violin strings. And she is mordantly funny, a wry taxonomist of emotions and relationships.... She has sliced life thin enough for a microscope and magnified it until it fills the mind's eye and the heart.

Scenes from a marriage, sometimes lyrical, sometimes philosophically rich, sometimes just puzzling.... The fragmented sometimes hard to follow, and at times, the precious.There are moments of literary experimentation worthy of Virginia Woolf here, but in the end, this reads more like notes for a novel than a novel itself.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. This novel is written in a fragmentary, elliptical style. Why do you think it is structured this way?  2. How would the story change if it were told in a more straightforward fashion?

3. The epigraph for the novel is a quote from Socrates: “Speculators on the universe are... no better than madmen.” Where else in the book does the narrator talk about madness?

4. Is this a book about loneliness?

5. Have you ever known an art monster? Have you ever been one? 

6. On pages 43 and 44, the narrator includes a “Personality Questionnaire.”  What phobias or fears would you include if you wrote your own?

7. The narrator says, “I would give it up for her . . . but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she was eighteen.” What do you make of this passage? 

8. What does it mean to throw off ambition “like an expensive coat that no longer fits?”

9. When the narrator’s sister tells her, “You have a kid-glove marriage” (page 81), does the narrator agree?

10. Why does the POV change midway through the book? Why does she become “the wife” and he, “the husband”?

11. What reaction did you have to the soscaredsoscaredsoscaredsoscaredsoscared chapter? 

12. If someone asked you, “When were you the happiest?” what would you say? Would you say the same thing no matter who asked you?

13. The narrator says at one point, “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.” Does this seem true to you?

14. Why does the narrator want to meet the girl? Why is this section framed as if it is a student paper she is grading?

15. The wife says “(So ask the birds at least. Ask the fucking birds.)” Who is she speaking to? Why is this placed in parentheses as if it is an offhand comment?

16. Chapter 46—the last chapter in the novel—switches the point of view of first person plural, “We.” Why do you think this change is made?

17. Is this a happy ending?  Do you want it to be?  

18. Discuss what matters most to you.
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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