My lovely friend Catherine Hall is a book tease. I went and stayed with her quite a lot last year and every time she would rave and rave about Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation as being the best book she had read in ages, and every time she would have lent it to someone else. It also seemed to be a book that had always sold out in bookshops I happened to fall into when it was in hardback. When it came out in paperback though I snaffled it on its day of release, and read it on its day of release, twice. It has just taken me a while to get round to writing about it to the point where I feel I do it justice because Catherine Hall was right, it is one of the best books I have read in quite some time.
That one was so beautiful I used to watch him sleep. If I had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say this: he made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn’t.
They say that there is not a single new story under the sun, or something like that, and if I was to say to you that Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation was the story of a couple from their first meeting to the time after one has an affair and the fall out of that, you might think ‘oh nothing new there’. Normally I would be with you, rolling my eyes the loudest, however whilst that story arc might be well trodden in literature I don’t think that anyone has done it in such an original manner as Offill.*
In a series of chapters that are really made up of many short paragraphs or sentences Offill builds us a fully formed vision of a relationship. We have those first moments of connection, the first conversations, the first night of passion, the working out the unwritten rules as the relationship defines itself. We go through moving in together, marriage, children. Then we hit the affair, the questions of forgiveness and of if staying together is right. We have the highs and we have the lows and we have them in possibly some of the most intimate bursts of description I have ever read.
It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of it all.
Because Dept. of Speculation is a novella, and the way it is constructed is so swiftly done, I don’t really want to give you any more of the story than that. All I will say is that you feel for the narrator as they unravel these moments partly because you have been there before and in some ways feels like you are getting snippets of conversation from a friend. Or if you are like me, snippets of a conversation that is going on at a table not far from you that you simply cannot stop listening to. What I have to tell you about is just how ruddy marvellous Jenny Offill’s writing is, so don’t you try and stop me.
One of the quirky, for I think that is a word which can be applied to this novella, things that I found most affective (after some of the heartbreaking poignant moments) in her writing is the way that as we read on we are given random facts that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the story. For example we are told about antelopes vision, the habits of birds and facts about microbes. Initially you find yourself thinking ‘what on earth are these about’ and yet as you read on you realise that these seemingly random paragraphs and facts actually bear an uncanny relationship to where our narrators head or heart is at and it gives the novel this additional force of emotion when you (literally) least expect it. There is also no seeming rhyme or reason to them, sometimes they arrive solitary, sometimes in unrelated (yet somehow apt) groups. I found this really powerful.
There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear bird song there. Our ears have evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.
The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our lives moving back and forth between these three.
Offill might keep her prose short, sharp and sparse but it is filled with imagery, colour, emotion and atmosphere. One of the ways in which I think her writing can be at its most powerful is when (and I know I mention this a lot but it is something I love when done well) she writes a moment that is initially really, really funny and then smacks you round the chops with a sudden realisation of the sadness behind it. There were several moments during Dept. of Speculation where I would laugh out loud and then suddenly be hit with the bittersweet tang of the undertone that was lying in wait for me. Like when Offill writes…
At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.
And that phrase – “sleeping like a baby.” Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.
I found these moments incredibly real. No, I haven’t had a child but I have babysat a lot and indeed when my little sister was born, when I was just sweet sixteen, her crying would lead me to sneak into her room take her out her cot and cuddle her much too the fury of my mother and step father who were trying to create a routine. It is probably the level of reality in Offill’s writing that is where the book chimed so much with me. As I read on I found myself having had the same thoughts and emotions as the narrator. It took me back to those wonderful first flutterings of love and lust and those dark moments of utter heartbreak. It delivers all this simply and succinctly, no bells and whistles, just wonderful writing.
Are animals lonely?
Other animals, I mean.
I think Dept. of Speculation is something quite special. It is a book of observations that will speak to you. You will converse with it in your mind, you will relate to it and then you will want to talk to lots of people about it. I also think in living through its protagonist’s relationship you will come away feeling like you understand and value the relationships you have now and the ones that you have had before. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and you will feel better for both. I highly, highly recommend you read it.
*Note: I will now get lots of emails telling me this has been done before. I won’t believe one of them, ha.