By Darcey Steinke
5:00 PM EST, January 30, 2014
Jenny Offill's riveting new novel, "Dept. of Speculation," is steeped in weird and geeky facts. It opens, for example, with the information that antelope have "10x vision" and on a clear night can see the rings of Saturn. It's a fitting beginning to a book that combines eclectic minutia with a laser-like narrative of a family on the edge of dissolution.
The wife, the novel's nameless main character, is in crisis, threatened by abandonment. This has fragmented her interior life, and Offill's prose reflects this chaos: paragraphs shatter, surreal details rise up and into the narrative. On every page there are "fun facts" tainted with cynicism: Thomas Edison thought memories came from outer space, the connected fibers in a human brain could wrap around the Earth 40 times, the Buddha named his son Rahula, which means "fetter."
Before the wife is miserable, she is happy. Her husband is Midwestern, kind. He makes soundscapes of the city. At the radio station where he works, he once played the sound of atoms smashing and another time wind moving across leaves.
They get married. Make a home. It's the birth of her daughter and motherhood that begin to pull her off her axis. The baby has a "stunned shipwrecked look," and caring for her is both "urgent and tedious." The only place her daughter sleeps is in Rite Aid, as the wife roams the aisles endlessly with her stroller. She orders a heartbeat CD, only to feel haunted by the thunderous rhythm, "as if trapped, forced to live inside the heart with no possibility of escape."
"Dept. of Speculation" deals with motherhood in an honest, unsentimental way. The wife is madly in love with her baby, but caring for her daughter "cuts the day into little scraps." The wife is also frustrated because she has given up on her plan to become an "art monster": She had thought she might never get married and instead devote herself exclusively to art.
"Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things," says the wife, who published a novel 12 years earlier and is not working on a new book. She teaches writing and takes a job editing a book about outer space, written by a crackpot almost-astronaut who has made a killing selling bug zappers. Bugs also figure into the narrator's daily life in the form of bed bugs. She and her husband must cook their clothes in a special cooker before leaving the house so as not to spread their infestation.
At first, even within this domestic turmoil, the wife finds grace. Her relationship with her daughter is deep and intimate. In one long section, childhood is rendered in an italicized prose that reads like poetry: "Potato stamps, paper chains, invisible ink, spaceships, cowboys, a cake shaped like a flower, a cake shaped like a cake, inside voice, outside voice."
And in another beautiful passage, the daughter, who has recently broken both wrists by jumping off a swing, brings her nightlight into her parents' room and plugs it in, scattering fake stars over the ceiling. Everyone falls asleep but the wife, who lies awake, listening to the sound of their breath. "Amazing out of dark waters. This."
When the daughter turns 6, the age many tribes consider children self-sufficient, the husband has an affair. This betrayal amps up the narration, bringing on a desperation that is both violent and funny. We learn the German word for her current state, Kummerspeck, literally means "grief-bacon." Every song now has meaning to the wife, even Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." She fantasizes about meeting an old boyfriend: "Maybe they could talk about God. Then make out. Then talk about God again." When she and the husband lie in bed tentatively holding hands the wife secretly gives him the finger.
Offill's novel adds to the growing literature of female abandonment. "The Women Destroyed" by Simone de Beauvoir, "The End of the Story" by Lydia Davis, "Days of Abandonment" by Elena Ferrante and, most recently, "Bluets" by Maggie Nelson all concern women betrayed, grieving, but still resilient. These works, like Offill's, depict abandonment as emotionally devastating but also as crucial to female growth. By becoming the archetypical women scorned, the wife in "Dept. of Speculation" sheds her conventional identity and moves toward enlightenment, empowerment, even a kind of hard-won genius.
I won't give away the end of this jewel of a book, a novel as funny, honest and beguiling as any I have read. Suffice to say that, while a broken marriage threatens and fragments the wife's identity, it also brings her into a more complex understanding of the fragility and holiness of her long-term commitment. "Dept. of Speculation" is sprinkled with quotes from a variety of thinkers — Wittgenstein, Weil, Keats — but it's a rabbi who has the final word. "Three things in this life," he says, "have the flavor of the world to come: the Sabbath, the sun and married love."
Steinke is the author of the memoir "Easter Everywhere" and the forthcoming novel "Sister Goldenhair."
Dept. of Speculation
Alfred A. Knopf: 192 pp., $22.95
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