Review: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

deptofspeculation_jennyoffill_knopfThat night on TV, I saw the tattoo I wished my life had warranted.  If you have known suffering, love me.  A Russian murderer beat me to it. (p.9)

I just spent the last hour and thirty four minutes reading the entirety of a novel that left me unsettled, sad, and impressed.  The first page of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation led me to make a note of “lyrical, poetic, each paragraph could stand on its own.”  This held true for much of the small, 177 page book, which has left me fumbling to review it coherently.

The narrative (I can’t quite call it a story, though the story is there) of a single woman who marries, has a child, changes from first to third person when faced with  the pain of infidelity.  This change in point of view is extremely effective.  The abrupt transitions show the distancing of the woman, as she begins to refer to herself as this or “the wife,” though for me as a reader it served to emphasize the hurt which is not always fully expressed.

You’re a truth bomb, a cute guy said to her once at a party.  Before excusing himself to go flirt with someone else. (p. 124)

The work the author has done to build suspense and to communicate the essence of this experience is skillfully and subtly done.  The text is primarily made up of short paragraphs, thoughts really, that include references and quotes and are somewhat a stream of consciousness but taking a form that is unexpected.  It is all so seemingly real and mundane, combining humor and the tragic so that at some points I was unsure if I could continue reading but at the same time could not put it down.  The experience of reading it was like that rare occasion when a group of girlfriends leave a movie elated but somewhat devastated and stand in the theater lobby in a circle discussing it for half an hour in 2004 (Vanity Fair, if you are curious).

She sends her best friend a text.  “11pm.  Husband still playing video games.”  There is a little ping.  The husband looks at her.  “You sent that to me.” (p. 159)

Though I do have a quasi-literature degree, I struggle to adequately describe or interpret this book.  Possibly letting it sit and stew in my brain for a while would be wiser than this immediate, visceral reaction, but it has left me in a bit of an emotional kerfuffle that I need to exorcise in order to sleep.

5/5 stars because I am so impressed by how this work was crafted.  There are things to be taken from this, not only as a writing example but from the story itself, but I’ll leave you to choose what you would take from it.  Highly recommended with the caveat that it does include a few crude word choices.

Oh, and I ran to the library to grab a copy of this book after reading the (far superior) review by Simon Savage at SavageReads (that there is a link to his review, but fair warning – he will make you want to read stuff), but then got sidetracked and finally picked it up this evening because I had pretty much forgotten everything about it and could hopefully go at it a little blindly (didn’t even let myself read any element of the dust jacket beyond the spine).  So glad I did, but now I need to read something light and fluffy to relax my brain…

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill | Alfred A. Knopf, 2014 | Hardcover, 177 pgs

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