By Jenny Offill
Published by Granta, 2014
Speculators on the universe … are no better than madmen.
This quote, from Socrates, begins a story of an ordinary marriage within an ordinary life. But it is told in such an extraordinary way that it demands to be read to the end in one sitting. Of course, I have kids and I work and there are plums falling from the tree in our back yard insisting they be turned into jam, so I didn’t read it in one sitting, but I wanted to. And I might when the kids grow up – that’s how much I enjoyed this book.
It is svelte; just 177 small pages with wide margins and large type (this was its original selling point I’m ashamed to say – I refer you again to the kids and the job and the plums), and its style is episodic; small paragraphs act like photographs in an album, and the life of the narrator flashes before you as you turn the pages. At first I wondered if any depth could be gleaned from such a style, and whether I would find myself wanting more. In this respect it was initially a challenge, not due to any difficulty in the language or obscurity of meaning, it has neither of these, but because it was unfamiliar. I have never read a book like this and there was a certain fear of the unknown. But it didn’t last more than a dozen pages (and remember, they are small and spaciously written so the period of discomfort was barely 10 minutes).
I definitely did not want for more. Dept. of Speculation achieves so much with so little. It is a sketch of a marriage so perfectly drawn that colour and detail would only spoil it. The narrator, the wife, is unpicking her life in the way life is unpicked by any of us – in a moment that represents months, in an action that reminds us of habit, in a phrase that speaks volumes. Lives and relationships evolve over years but we only notice change occasionally. This book compiles those observations to extraordinary effect.
Halfway through the story the narrator says, ‘Some women make it look easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.’ I didn’t need her to describe the years of trying to be something more or someone else, and the emotion of not succeeding.
There is lethargy in the tone of the narrator and a disarmingly calm disclosure of events that leaves the reader to interpret the emotion of the story. There is no manipulation here and no hand-holding, just a simple tale, told simply. I am reminded of the Raymond Carver short story – What we talk about when we talk about Love – the words we use are just a veneer; they are often inadequate to the task. Our experience of love is complicated and difficult to explain. In Dept. of Speculation there is no explanation, and so, as a reader, I feel I understood more.
So, what of the title? I have been trying to work it out. We are told that the narrator and her husband signed off their letters with the Dept. of Speculation, but I think Socrates gives the greater clue: Speculators on the universe are no better than madmen. Perhaps the message is that speculation on love and marriage may send you mad.
Dept. of Speculation was published last year so it will be easy to find at your local independent book store (though not so easy to find at the discount chains, for obvious reasons). Buy it or borrow it, you won’t regret the moments you spend reading it.
Produced and recorded for Radio Northern Beaches, Sydney