I gave up on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book One and began reading Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost instead. Much better! I am once again a happy reader. Another novel that has gotten lots of buzz is Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. This one lived up to expectations.
It is a small, slim novel written in short chapters. Each chapter itself is made of of mostly small paragraphs that do not necessarily follow one to the other. They make leaps and associations on a small scale like the chapters do on a larger scale. One would think that a story told thusly would be disjointed and difficult to follow especially since the book covers a span of many years from courtship to marriage to having a child, to the child getting a little older and the marriage coming apart because the husband had an affair and their struggle to make repairs and keep going. Or not. The book ends in uncertainty. The husband and the wife, always called such and never named, may or may not save their marriage.
Part of the struggle of the wife, aside from her husband’s affair, is something that artistic women have always struggled with:
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
She manages to publish a novel and at a party thrown by a friend on her 29th birthday she meets the man who becomes her husband. After that the mundane interferes and the time passes and she is still working on her next book and getting nowhere. Instead of being an art monster she has to take work as a ghost writer, writing someone else’s books. And when the baby arrives it becomes even harder:
And that phrase — “sleeping like a baby.” some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.
The wife worries about how easy it is to forget about being an art monster, yet she doesn’t forget because it keeps popping up again and again. She has no room of her own. The husband is not a bad man. He is involved with raising their daughter. He loves his wife. But the mundane overtakes him too and he has an affair with a younger woman at his office.
In the midst of their marriage falling apart and trying to put it back together, the wife
has begun planning a secret life. In it, she is an art monster. She puts on yoga pants and says she is going to yoga, then pulls off onto a country lane and writes in tiny cramped handwriting on a grocery list. She thinks she should go off her meds maybe so as to write more fluidly. Possibly this is not a good idea.
An interesting thing to note, at the end, the very end in the last two paragraphs, the pronouns change from she and he to we, you and I. What does it mean? The reader can only speculate really. And the speculation is satisfying.
The title, Dept of Speculation, comes from the return address the wife and husband used to put on letters they wrote to each other. The book begins with a quote from Socrates:
Speculators on the universe … are no better than madmen.
And really, aren’t we all mad then? Because when you think about it we live our lives as speculators, getting married, having a career, having children. We make plans and decisions based on how we think things are going to be and operate in the present as though that future were true. And when things don’t turn out how we imagined, we deal with it or we don’t all the time. But if we weren’t speculators, what kind of life would that be? Some things are worth the risk, some are not. The trick is figuring out which is which.