(New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)
If you had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say it was this. He made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn’t.
A couple weeks ago, I experienced an epic social fail. It was the culminate event of yet another bungled, fifty-something, this should be easier than it is, relationship. There had been a few weeks of daily emails, four Latin dance classes, a bit of flirtation, a few lies, some mixed signals, and one particularly passionate kiss. Then the mysterious and heartbreaking retreat into phone and internet silence, followed by both of us turning up at posh hotel dance event, but not with each other.
Confronting failure is not something I do particularly well, but never had I attained less-than-well so publically. After sobbing into the arms of a friend, I opted for the dramatic exit and a long walk home, during which I realized I have become that woman every guy is talking about when he stipulates… “no drama, no baggage,”… I had just perpetrated both – in spades.
Jenny Offill’s novel, Dept. Of Speculation is a perfect, condensed (as in nothing spare or superfluous – every word is knife point) chronicle of lives lived with full-on, unapologetic drama and baggage. Not the lives our pre-adult selves imagined having, but the emotional grist that most of us actually end up with.
Offill’s main character is wickedly funny and poignantly vulnerable woman. She opens the story with a chronicle of her early adult years, including marriage and the birth of her daughter, giving the reader a rare window into the character’s insecurity and hesitance. It’s a simple premise, elegantly conveyed with Offill’s spartan prose; life is full of twists, bumps, disappointments and personal tragedies, often with only a modest helping of joy on the side. It’s that annoying rift between what we want, or thought we would have, what we ended up with, and how we made peace with that (or didn’t). Not unlike Offill’s character, in my decades ago, pregnant, pre-parent self, I remember harboring a pristine vision of myself with a happy cooing infant by my side — and the reality, many months later, crouched behind a wooden baby gate and sobbing over a cup of tea while my son shrieked at me, his tiny hands wrapped around the wooden bars like some incarcerated victim of my inadequacy.
“Put a hat on that baby,” said every old biddy that passed me. But the devil baby cleverly dispatched with them to ride bareheaded in the freezing rain and wind.
One can’t help but engage with Offill’s character, sometimes called “the wife” sometimes “I,” (the author shifts point of view like the best three card monte man in Central Park) as she grapples with relationships, career and parenthood, and the slippage between hopes and reality. The unusual and profound sense of intimacy with the characters draws the reader in. There is no bluster, no pretense, just discovery and disillusion. This is real, she seems to be saying, not some glib writerly version of a main character.
I learned you were fearless about the weather. You wanted to walk around the city, come rain come snow come sleet, recording things. I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.
Offill’s style resembles this ingenious garment. The narrative is delivered in small bites; short paragraphs separated by white space, there are thoughts, moments, observations, events—separate, yet cleverly stitched together liked the many-pocketed coat. It allows the characters to dance in, deliver a bit of the story and then spin away without being trapped in a larger storyline. It seems just right in this compressed, texty, tweety world to deliver the story so simply, without flourish, more like a conversation than a narrative.
About mid-way through, the story reaches a tipping point, and we read with utter dismay (at least I did) as life begins to unravel, and the delicately held intimacy of marriage and friendship is violated by infidelity and the caustic erosion of unrealized ambitions (oh, and the bedbugs). For me, this was a, I’m-not-putting-this-book-down-until-things-get-better moment, so plan on a good long afternoon of reading.
Offill’s character begins a terrifying spiral downward. I’d like to say it’s like watching a cherished friend head off to rehab and wishing them the best, but the author gets much closer than that. She puts her writer finger on that most brittle part of our own inner lives and gives it a good hard poke. It isn’t the just the wife, headed into mental, emotional and marital chaos, it’s me…that me sobbing so bitterly in the hotel lobby, as my imperfect, post-divorce wall of safety came down around me.
Don’t expect a comfortable resolution. Instead, the author serves the second half of her story it as comes, walking us through the dissolution of dreams with blunt, unencumbered words.
Easier, he says.
The frustration of the character is palpable creating another bond between author and reader. Don’t we all want to be that “Easier” women (or man)? Why are we unable to let go of the twisted complexity we seem to knit around ourselves, even in the every day process of life. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Life is rarely a smoothly pressed garment that we can slip in and out of, and Offill’s gift is letting us know that perhaps the trick is finding a fascination with the wrinkles and bumps.
Whenever the wife wants to do drugs, she thinks about Sartre. One bad trip and then a giant lobster followed him around for the rest of his days.
As writers, I think we are often seduced by the desire to present a solution in the lives and troubles of our characters — tie up the loose ends — complete our story arc with the slightly smug, lip-smacking satisfaction of a problem presented and resolved. Offill has transcended the need to moralize. Instead, picking up Dept. Of Speculation is like having a long lunch with a funny and cherished best friend. The story is engaging and enviously clever. There are no lessons taught here, no dénouement, but you can plan on coming away with the sense that we might all be okay, that there is enough joy in our drama-filled, baggage laden lives to make the journey worthwhile.
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Jody Handerson is a working writer and editor living in Boulder, Colorado with an enormous black cat, five bicycles and eighty-two pairs of shoes. She is a contributing editor to TLR.