The year of Wrong Living: Jenny Offill’s *Dept. of Speculation*

I loved the new Jenny Offill novel Dept. of Speculation.  (Here’s a good piece on it by Elaine Blair in the NYRB, and James Wood also wrote about it recently in The New Yorker (March 31 issue)… And here’s the NYT review.)

As Blair comments, and Wood may draw the same parallel, in voice and form it slightly recalls Renata Adler’s cult novel Speedboat (recently reissued by the New York Review of Books press) and the essays of Joan Didion.  But imagine that kind of witty, cool, alienated young-female-intellectual voice combined with, I don’t know, something like Tina Fey’s memoir.  (Maybe Sheila Heti’s work would be the most obvious current analogy.)  It’s an autobiographical novel, sort of, but also can read like a philosophical essay, comprised of brief, gnomic chapters, often consisting just of an observation or two, an anecdote, decontextualized quotations, chunks of prose that seem patched in from some other genre entirely, etc.  It eventually reveals itself as the narrative of adultery and divorce, as the 40-something narrator, “the wife,” a novelist in Brooklyn struggling to write her second book, realizes that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman.  It’s also a book about motherhood, chronicling the narrator’s experience as a mother to an infant who becomes an early school-age girl in the course of the book.  It has some of the best, truest, and least sentimentalized evocations of the experience of taking care of a baby & toddler I can remember (in this and some other things it reminded me a little of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle vol 2).

Offill explains how she came to the novel’s form in a recent interview with NPR:

Well, the book came from the ashes of another book, which was much more linear in construction. But at a certain point, I realized I wanted to capture more of the fragmentary nature of thought, and especially of the way emotion moves in and out of people. And I began to write on notecards and shuffle them together; and I started to find these startling juxtapositions, which I thought were interesting, and led me down this path.

That makes perfect sense, and explains the sense of freedom the book conveys in the playful, unforced way it shifts between voices, styles, tones, and forms of address.  (Shuffling around the index cards.)  As Elaine Blair points out, the form and the approach is that of experimental, avant-garde fiction, but one never loses the thread of the story and of the organizing consciousness.

Here is the holiday letter that she would have written (her husband “won’t let me write one. We send a smiling picture instead”).  The “bugs” refers to the family’s epic struggle to rid their daughter and their apartment of lice & bedbugs.

It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.

Great material on yoga throughout, which she takes up therapeutically in the midst of the breakup:

The Yoga People always travel in pairs, their mats under their arms, their hair severely shorn in that new mother way. But what if someone sucker punched them and took their mats away? How long until they’d knuckle under?…

The wife goes to yoga now. Just to shut everyone up. She goes to it in a neighborhood where she does not live and has never lived. She takes the class meant for old and sick people but can still hardly do any of it. Sometimes she just stands and looks out the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga live. Sometimes the wife cries as she is twisting herself into positions. There is a lot of crying in the class for old and sick people so no one says anything.

I wished the book had been longer (you can almost read it at a sitting)!

1 thought on “The year of Wrong Living: Jenny Offill’s *Dept. of Speculation*”

  1. Ivan, thanks for writing about this book. I’m in the middle of it–taking a brief break–and love it. Smart and beautiful and funny and I suspect it will be heartbreaking, too.

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