Life equals structure plus activity.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

This is perhaps the best written unmemorable book I’ve ever read. I could be wrong in that of course. The trouble about unmemorable books is it’s hard to rank them in memory.

I read Dept. shortly before going on a three-week holiday in the US. It’s a novella, under 200 pages but with lots of space and it’s a very quick read. It came very highly recommended and as I read it I was blown away. I thought it a shoo-in for my 2015 end of year wrap-up.

Dept. of Speculation

Now, some five or six weeks later, I look at the passages I noted and I recognise them but they’re islands of prose. There’s a popular type of image to use when depicting Canary Wharf, London’s second financial centre; corporate glass and steel towers rising out of clouds, isolated and aloof. Here’s an example:


Writing this today, that’s how Dept. is for me. I have the quotes I’ll include in this piece, but otherwise it’s completely lost.

The narrator is a creative-writing teacher in Brooklyn (I know, bear with me here for a moment). Her partner (husband? I don’t remember) records street and nighttime sounds which he uses to make abstract electronic music. These are all real things of course. I read novels by Brooklyn authors (this is one). I listen to quite a lot of field-recording electronic music. Still, it’s fair to say we’re in a bubble here.

Another night. My old apartment in Brooklyn. It was late, but of course, I couldn’t sleep. Above me, speed freaks merrily disassembling something. Leaves against the window. I felt a sudden chill and pulled the blanket over my head. That’s the way they bring horses out of a fire, I remembered. If they can’t see, they won’t panic. I tried to figure out if I felt calmer with a blanket over my head. No I did not was the answer.

The narrator and her partner met, they fell in love, they had a kid, they have relationship problems. That’s pretty much the story, such as it is, and what more do you need? For most of us our dramas are domestic, and better that than to live through wars and famines.

Dept. is written in fragments of thought. Each paragraph is a reflection, a moment, a passing mental connection. That’s its chief strength, because much of it feels true to how we think, or how I think anyway. It isn’t chronological but rather goes back and forth flitting from thought to memory to thought. It’s like Buddhist meditation where you allow your mind to wander as it wishes and observe it as it does so, but somehow remain separate from it.

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. 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 all of it.

As an aside, I tried Buddhist meditation once. I am it turns out not yet ready to be enlightened. My mind chatters loudly. So it goes.

When it works, which is almost all the time, it works superbly well. I was absolutely captured by Offill’s voice. The paragraph-thoughts are neat and clearly very carefully crafted but that’s fine, the narrator is after all a Brooklyn novelist and anyway novels are by their nature inherently artificial. Offill has a meticulous eye and an understated sense of humour and I found this an effortlessly easy read – a standing contradiction to the false dichotomy between readability and literary quality.

Themes emerge (or I assume they do based on the paragraphs I noted at the time), most notably the challenge of “the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary experience”. The narrator and her partner are both artists, but art demands dedication and life demands compromise. In the early days:

I learned you were fearless about the weather. You wanted to walk around the city, come rain come snow come sleet, recording things. I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.

That can’t last though. Now the narrator spends her days looking after her child, trying her best to make something interesting of her day to tell her partner when he comes home. Their lives aren’t in each other’s pockets anymore, and she hasn’t turned out to be the selfish “art-monster” caring about nothing but her craft that she once dreamed of being. It’s not so much that she resents the life she has (she loves her child and her partner, even with their current problems), but rather that the gradual brutality of adapting to the ordinary wearies her.

Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.

It’s not quite what I’d call universal, but it’s not rare either. Almost anyone who spent university talking philosophy and art and drinking in late night bars will recognise the shock of finding yourself having to get to work on a Wednesday morning. How did all that come to this? Why does all that always seem to come to this? There are good answers, but not always satisfying ones.

I mentioned Offill’s sense of humour. Part of it manifests in gently mocking her own craft:

Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart … it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.


My friend who teaches writing sometimes flips out when she is grading stories and types the same thing over and over again. WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE? WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?

This is not of course a novel where most of the time you have the faintest idea where you are in time and space. It’s also that theme again, art and mundanity. Teaching writing, which is teaching art, reduced to marking piles of repetitive scripts. You might as well work in an office, at least you’d get the evenings off.

Oddly, the only passage that didn’t work for me at all was the one that justified the title. At one point the narrator observes:

They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.

Even for Brooklyn artists I just didn’t buy that. Of course, for all I know that’s a detail Offill took from her own life or from some friend’s anecdote. It could be completely real. It doesn’t matter though because it’s not convincing. Dept. is a deeply artificial novel both in terms of style and structure (“It’s important to note the POV switch here”) flipping between first and third person as the narrator feels closer to or more distant from her partner. It’s delicate and intricate and beautifully worked. At that moment though the soap-bubble just popped for me and for the first time I didn’t believe it. It was an oddly false note and at the time I thought would be my only criticism.

Now though, now my criticism is that Dept. is a snowflake of a novel that glitters beautifully but vanishes away to nothing. I don’t know that’s necessarily a bad thing. Not every novel has to mark your life, but it is a troubling thing. As I write this I can call passages and scenes and even the shape of the text from say Cassandra at the Wedding effortlessly to mind but here I had to quote every passage I noted because otherwise I had nothing to hold on to.

Other reviews

John Self of TheAsylum reviewed this for the Guardian, here, and there are some comments about it on his blog also here. He didn’t have any issues remembering it, but then he read it twice before reviewing it which may have helped. An unscientific poll on twitter suggests I’m not alone in having loved it but then having forgotten it. John also interviewed Jenny Offill on his blog, here, and it’s an illuminating interview in terms of influences and structural choices.

Trevor of themookseandthegripes also reviewed this, here. It’s been quite widely reviewed so as ever please feel free to let me know of reviews I’ve missed in the comments.


Finally, I read this on kindle. You shouldn’t. Formatting and layout matters here and Offill even gave thought to the typeface (which is lost on Kindle). If you are going to read this, and despite what is at times a moderately negative review I do still recommend it, read it in hardcopy.



Filed under Offill, Jenny

20 responses to “Life equals structure plus activity.

  1. Yes, yes, glad to see that someone else wasn’t quite sold on it. It worked for me as poetry, as a book to dip into occasionally (rather like a collection of essays), but as a whole, coherent narrative it just didn’t. And, as you point out, many weeks or months down the line, it hasn’t made as profound an impression on me as ‘Revolutionary Road’ for instance.
    Here’s my review:

  2. Sendra

    Why was it quite so elusive? Do you think it was the subject matter? It doesn’t appear to be the prose or the themes. It seems to have been well done but that might not be enough. Perhaps there is no neat answer? Clearly, very Bad books can stick in the mind and often do like being unable to get the Birdie Song out of your head for an hour or so.
    I’m reading the Puppet Masters and the leering misogyny is almost wrecking it for me. Occasionally, ‘It was of its own time’ doesn’t quite fly. And I have a feeling it will be memorable. Do you have the same problem with Heinlein? Or being a man does it grate less? I doubt it. A useful discussion but perhaps not here.

  3. Hmm…just to pick up on yesterday’s brief Twitter conversation, I’ll be curious to see how you get on with Renata Adler’s Speedboat. It made a big impression on me at the time of reading, but two or three months down the line I was struggling to remember much about it. I loved the prose, the style, the themes…but it is a very ‘episodic’ book, full of vignettes. A handful of passages have stayed with me, but nowhere near as many as I’d hoped or expected would remain.

    I have Dept. on the bookshelf (physical copy, phew!) and I’m quite tempted to pick it up this weekend to see how I fare. I bought it when the hardback came out, but then all the buzz and attention sort of put me off for a while, and it’s been sitting there ever since. We’ll see – sounds as though it’s still worth reading despite your reservations. I’d say the same of Speedboat – there’s much to admire, but it could be another snowflake.

  4. Revolutionary Road is a pretty high benchmark Marina (I have a review here, short version is I loved it), but I do know what you mean. Thanks for the link, I’ll leave a comment at yours.

    Sendra, I don’t think there is a neat answer. Possibly the subject matter, but then here the domestic elements are mixed with the conflict between ordinary life and ambition and that takes it beyond most “domestic” novels. Even so, I remember say Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz which is if anything much more domestic much more clearly.

    I don’t think I’ve read The Puppet Masters, or if I have it was as a teenager when I noticed that sort of thing less. Even then though I was aware there were issues with Heinlein, some of his later stuff seemed downright creepy and I remember as a teenager being slightly staggered at how sexist say The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was.

    It’s funny, as a teenager I liked AE Van Vogt a fair bit. A while back I tried reading one again, a classic that I recall loving, but the sexism was so choking I abandoned it in a couple of chapters. I think it probably is easier to bear if you’re male as it doesn’t directly affect you, or perhaps it’s just easier not to notice if it’s subtle, but once you do notice it it does become a problem because even apart from the unpleasantness of prejudice it means the female characters don’t convince.

    Le Carre for example, I really like his stuff, but he can’t write women convincingly. Or my recent review of Dick’s Clans of the Alphane Moon which has some great ideas and moments but is woefully let down by Dick’s habit of describing every female character’s breasts.

    Jacqui, interesting on Speedboat. I hope to get to that fairly soon so we’ll see, though if I review it soon after reading it it might be interesting six months or so later to see if I still agree with what I write.

    It’s still worth reading. It won’t take long, if you pick it up this weekend you’ll have finished it before Monday.

  5. I’ve seen many reviews on this and as noted, most people seem to feel the same as you. It would be interesting though to ask the writers of glowing reviews if they just read the book, and then ask the writers of the blah reviews how long ago they finished the book. “Islands of prose” is the impression I had of the book-not those precise words, but you get my meaning.

  6. I’m really interested in your thoughts on this but since it’s on my 20 under 200 pile, which means I’ll read it soon, I’ll keep your post for later.

  7. Sendra

    It’s also true that the author’s character can just bleed out despite the general prejudices of the time. Fleming for example is very hard to take. ‘Rape is the best way to seduce women, Mr Bond. Women respect rape.’ That didn’t make the final cut of Skyfall. Your note on Vogt made me laugh though. I wonder if a female sci-fi writer could have gotten away with lingering on men’s buttocks? That of course would be comedy. I’m sure Vogt was aiming for worldly-wise. Glad you enjoyed your holiday.

  8. Guy, yes, I’m relieved a bit not to be as much an outlier as I thought I might be. Writing the review it did come back a bit, and the prose is great, but it is oddly slippery.

    I suspect if we all wrote two reviews, one immediate and one subsequent, they’d often coincide but it would be interesting too how often they didn’t. You can’t always tell which way either, some books grow in memory, some of course fade.

    Caroline, I do the same, I’ll look forward to your thoughts once you’ve read it.

    Sendra, here’s my one Fleming review from this blog: It’s from way back when I started blogging. If you look you’ll see I hated the brutal sexism of it which is why I’ve not read another since.

    Of their time goes a certain way, but only so far. A certain sexism might come with the period, but the way Fleming writes about rape though is a product of the writer not the age.

  9. I’m just reading Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd now, which is very similar in terms to theme and episodic structure, but am finding that one much better (so far).

  10. Sendra

    In regards to Casino Royale, another strong and perceptive review. Not that you have to try too hard with Fleming. Surfaces, brands, sociopathy as approved male conduct and the sheer mean instincts of the author . You nailed it. ‘Tang of rape’. Isn’t Tang a drink? I doubt I would enjoy the flavour. Sorry to go off track but there is an interesting, complicated conversation to be had at some point. One I might have with my class.
    I can enjoy Lovecraft, Pound and Wagner even though they held despicable opinions and this often showed in their work. But I can be selective in my tolerances and there is no particular gradient. Cervantes and Gibbon might throw in the odd horrid line about Jews but I swallow my invested uneasiness, turn the page and forget.
    At a certain age, you can’t be too political in your choice of friends and books but there are tripwires and those must be a nebulose and personal matter.
    I hope you don’t mind if I quote you in that class.

  11. shigekuni

    Oh, I was really hoping this would be good. Dang it. Thanks for your review.

  12. Just dropping back to say I read Dept. over the weekend, and…I don’t know…I quite liked it but didn’t love it. (Interestingly, I much preferred Speedboat to Dept. at the time of reading, so I’m even more curious than ever to see how you find the Adler. Dept. is much more fragmentary than Speedboat, as far as I can recall.)

    There is something about Dept. though, a sort of cumulative effect that builds up over time giving the clear sense that this woman is lost. But I found some of it, dare I say it, just a little arch. Beautifully written, but I wasn’t captivated by it – islands of prose is a great description. I’m not going to review it (too many other books on the write-up pile) so just thought I’d add my comments here.

  13. Well, I’m sorry you didn’t like it more though it does sound like we’re in the same place on it. A little arch is fair. It’s a very Brooklyn/MFA novel.

  14. I really liked this when I read it (roughly a year ago) and some of it I remember quite distinctly. Arch – yes, I can agree with that, and I suppose “troubled relationships” are the ur-subject of MFA-type books. However I tend to think the standard MFA stuff much duller that this was; it would never hold my interest in such a thin plot the way Ofill managed to.

    Something I like about these episodic, fragmented novels is how they are build almost purely from nooks and crannies, in which surprises for the re-reader can lurk. There’s a distinctly different pleasure and satisfaction to be derived when compared to a more traditionally structured novel.

  15. It’s definitely better than standard MFA, though that’s potentially damning with faint praise. It certainly holds interest while you read it.

    Agreed on the nooks and crannies point. It leaves something for the reader to do too, and for me at least more closely mirrors my actual experience of the world which is notably lacking in traditionally structured narrative.

  16. Pingback: Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation (2014) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  17. I’m catching up with your reviews.
    So according to your review and the comments, this one isn’t a must read. Phew. No growing TBR, that’s welcome!

  18. Yup, it can be skipped. I do understand the phew…

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