Any review of the Dept. of Speculation is going to fall spectacularly short of successfully conveying what the book is about, simply because the pleasure of the story lies in the poetry of Jenny Offill’s words. A couple get married and have a baby in Brooklyn, New York. They manage the inanities of everyday life but relationships become complicated. We read it through the thoughts of the narrator / heroine, who always “thinks of saying” and whose forces are internalised.
It’s delightfully challenging to read as it’s written in a very modernist style. It almost feels like a modernist short story at times – Dept. of Speculation is a slim book that you could read in one sitting. Paradoxically, Jenny Offill is not economical with words; a whole page reads:
Indeed, the book is charged with this anxiety and nervous energy as the narrator reassures herself that her feelings mean “Fight or flight.”
Modernism is often said to be characterised by observing the relationship between time and space. Offill goes to extreme lengths to name this connection in various ways throughout: “WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE? WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?”; there are comments on the eruption of chronology, “This timeline doesn’t make sense” and the unnamed narrator notes that, “I should be more efficient”; and “Is it an hour? Is it an hour?” – a sure nod to the fact that (Modernist) short stories have to work to give the impression of time expanding to counter the effect of the length of the narrative contracting.
There are a number of moments in the story that reminded me of Katherine Mansfield (a modernist writer), with lines like: “All of my life now appears to be one happy moment.” It’s witty and ironic: very few characters have names, yet towards the end of the book we are told that “it is important to know the names of things.”
The novel is peppered with quotes from other modernist writers like W.B. Yeats and Franz Kafka, and there are references to key theorists who surrounded and influenced the modernist era, such as Freud (the word ‘Uncanny’ is repeated); and Saussure is evoked: “It would all signify differently.” We are told how love and emotion are frequently studied with scientific scrutiny.
We are given details about outer space too, as the narrator is working on a book with an “almost astronaut.” These informative passages are in contrast to the mundane details of life in New York in the book: coping with lice, treating a colicky baby.
I could happily quote at length from the novel but I think it’s probably best you read it for yourself. It’s an exquisite and sublime book, focussing not so much on what happens, but how… and for that reason, I loved it.
“Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offill is released on 20th March 2014, published by Granta Books, RRP £12.99.
My copy of ‘Dept. of Speculation’ was kindly sent to me (on my request) to review.