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Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill

by Venky

(Image Credit: Readers Digest)

Any book that begins with these opening lines, must vacillate between the brilliant and the bewildering: “Antelopes have 10× vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.” Jenny Offill’s “Dept of Speculation” – written after a hiatus of fifteen years since her first novel, ‘Last Things’ was published in 1999 – is a mesmerizing mix of both. Written from the perspective of an unnamed American woman, the book is unrepentantly biting in its transparency and appealingly vulnerable in its admission. The book is also dotted with combustible bursts of humour, which even though exquisitely placed in their rightful context, read puzzlingly and even apologetically unintended.

The protagonist faces a trifecta of existential crises: a writing and teaching job gone awry, a husband going astray, and life in general all set to go askew. Keeping in tandem with the crises, there are just three primary characters in this sylphlike book: the woman with her litany of woes, her husband, and their little daughter. A few ancillary characters in the form of the woman’s impatient sister who also doubles up as her agony aunt, and a philosopher friend (literally her friend, philosopher, and guide), living in the Sonoran Desert in the company of a poet who tends to sixty varieties of cacti in addition to speaking three languages, more or less complete the animate voices in the plot.

Written in a staccato burst of fragmentary prose poetry, “Dept of Speculation” is an assorted bricolage of memories, mistakes and musings. The protagonist and her husband lead a contended albeit financially modest life. Their marriage is preceded by an epistolary courtship where the couple always refer to their respective return address as “The Department of Speculation”. She with her hair dyed red and falling into bangs, and he with a $10 haircut.

Things begin to go downhill when with their active and intrepid daughter completing six years, the husband begins having an affair with a younger woman. “But there’s evidence that the age six still resonates with men. Researchers say that many men have affairs around the time their oldest child turns six. Chances are their genes will still march on even without direct oversight.

The disturbed wife narrates her turmoil in a didactically detached manner. A smidgeon of philosophy, a scattering of psychology and a splattering of cold and calculated rationale keep the reader riveted to every word that cuts like a knife in its impact, placement and significance. “How is that even possible?” the philosopher wonders when informed about the husband’s progressing infidelity. “He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.” “She knows. She knows. So it begs the question, doesn’t it? Did she unkind and ungood and untrue him?”

Consider this attempt at layering Buddhist wisdom over a joke which can be as poor as any that has ever been conceived, “Why couldn’t the Buddhist vacuum in corners? A. Because she had no attachments.”

Simone Weil, Keats, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the Buddha all make frenzied and fleeting appearances as they sprinkle their wit and wisdom at the most unexpected of junctures. Balustrades that the entire family leans on involuntarily, but appropriately. However, a special attraction is accorded to the Austrian poet and novelist, René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke. Doesn’t come as a surprise since Rilke is universally acknowledged as one of the most ‘lyrically intense’ German-language poets. Ms. Offill’s book is also as intense as they come, but without any outward confession or explicit concession of such intensity.

The book is also interspersed with bite size chunks of trivia which in the context of the plot are absolutely irrelevant yet not giving the impression that they are out of place. For example, in the act of obtaining additional income for the family, when the wife takes on an assignment that involves ghost writing the autobiography of an ‘almost astronaut’, the reader is given a concise yet charged account of the unfortunate Russian Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov,  the first Soviet Cosmonaut to fly in space, twice. A parachute failure however, caused his Soyuz capsule to crash into the ground after re-entry on 24 April 1967, making him the first human to die in a space flight. There is also a fabulous dissection of the romance between an already married Carl Sagan and the writer Ann Druyan, which led to an acrimonious divorce involving Sagan and his first wife, Linda.  

Dept of Speculation” is an experimental novel, stealthy and speculative, deceptive yet disclosing and ambivalent but admirable. More than everything else, this is a book that yells out “trim” “trim” “trim” at every page, paragraph, passage and even punctuation. There is not a single word that is in ‘excess’, and not a single character more than what is absolutely necessary. While the style of writing itself might not be every reader’s chosen cup of tea, it is certainly a sincere and honest invitation to come have a “sip”.

I will let Rilke have the final say however. “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always”.

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