Monday, April 14, 2014

"Dept. of Speculation," by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” (Knopf, 2014) is a small, original, compelling novel-in-a-non-novel-format. I was first put off by the description of the novel’s unusual format; I sometimes find myself quite traditional about such innovations. But the reviews have been heady, practically rapturous, so I succumbed and read the unorthodox novel. The whole novel, divided into chapters, consists of short, discontinuous chunks of prose, set off as if they are freestanding paragraphs, but not indented, and not flowing one into another. Some of them connect one to the next fairly explicitly, but many do not. However, somehow, bit by bit, they build a story. Or I should say, yes, a story, but more, a snapshot of a woman who is struggling. The narrator and main character, who sometimes calls herself “I” and sometimes “the wife,” has written one book and now cannot seem to write another, mainly because she has been derailed by marriage and motherhood. She is often in despair at her inability to write, at her baby daughter’s constant crying, and at the troubles in her marriage. Yet there are moments of happiness with her husband and her baby, and a fierce love for both, especially the latter. This young woman also has various friends who are sometimes a great comfort to her. The voice of this narrator/character is strong, individual,and striking. And the structure that I dreaded as being “experimental” (regular readers of this blog know I am not fond of such writing) was very readable; it “worked.” So now I understand the rave reviews, and add my own praise to that of others. Highly recommended.


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