Friday, May 29, 2015

Review: Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of Speculation
From Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill:
Open quote 

"'I think I must have missed your second book,' he says. 'No,' I say. 'There isn't one.' He looks uncomfortable; both of us are calculating the years or maybe only I am. 'Did something happen?' he says kindly after a moment. 'Yes,' I explain."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

That quote above is what's best about this novel and what's worst. That last line ("'Yes,' I explain.") is sparse writing that packs a wallop. It explains nothing and yet everything. It reminds me of one of the best lines of dialog in American fiction, Ring Lardner's "'Shut up,' he explained." Two words that tell you everything you need to know. Jenny Offill's novel is often like that, full of offhand remarks that might sound casually innocent in conversation, but when unpacked reveal still open wounds tearing at the narrator's heart.

The narrator is a woman whose husband is having an affair. She describes her marriage like she's writing a diary. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. Disjointed thoughts. Anecdotes. Seemingly random quotes and factoids she picks up from unknown sources. Individually, they might not sound serious, but collectively, they paint a portrait of a desperate woman in a marriage on the rocks.

But that's also what's worst about this novel. It's too scattershot to have maximum impact. The anecdotes are too short. The story is interrupted too often with random thoughts like, "Studies show that 110% of men who leave their wives for other women report that their wives are crazy." The cumulative effect is more clinical than emotional. It's like reading the pile of notes an author might have collected before writing her novel. Plenty of interesting thoughts and ideas, but a lack of integration into a whole. Still, the notes in the pile contain some great writing. Worth reading even if the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

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