Dept. of Speculation

dpt of specThe Short Version: The portrait of a courtship and marriage, from the point of view of “the wife” – who is an artist, a writer, and who cannot help but intimately examine every aspect of everything.  Told through near fragments, we chart the course of that examination.

The Review: Oof.  I can’t help feeling like I never want to fall in love again.  And yet (and yet)…

This book caught my eye during the ToB this year – it’s a charming, slender novel with a delightfully raised postage-stamp cover, recommended by the match commentators and posited as an early short-lister for next year.  John and Kevin discussed how fascinating it might be to match this book up against a goliath like the forthcoming City of Fire, to pit a 900-page-epic against less than 150 pages of prose that is distilled to its most potent of forms.  And while few if any who read this in the present-tense action of spring 2014 will have read City of Fire, I’m not sure I can see how it could ever hope to do what Jenny Offill does here.  This is a unique sort of alchemy.

The beginning, to the jaded reader, may induce an eye-roll and/or a sigh.  The curt prose, the almost-too-hip factoid about antelope, the chilly formality of it all.  I’ll admit to reading the first page a few times and then picking up other books, in the six or so weeks since I procured this volume.  But within the space of two or three pages, I found myself transfixed.  And it wasn’t because of the abruptness of the chapters, the brevity that often breeds haste in a reader – but rather these was a sense of piercing some kind of membrane, a sort of osmosis where suddenly I was no longer outside but inside and the coolness no longer seemed like an affectation but rather it was a white-hot sort of coolness.  There was passion here, but passion clamped down upon until it was a small star that was compressing even further, towards a diamond.

I wonder, as I think about this sense of compression, if this is the experience readers had when Hemingway first came out.  It’s not the same – this is by no means utilitarian prose – but just that sense of a new way to look at a sentence or a line.  There is more power in any given individual sentence in this novel than there are in some entire series.  Sure, some of them feel a little too worked over and others a little too new-cliché, but for the most part?  There’s a Tumblr-ready quote on nearly every page.  I know that might seem like a backhanded compliment but I assure you: these are quotes that I, every time I came across one, scribbled a note in my Field Notes in order to later pull it out for my Tumblr.  Do with that what you will.

I’m also not quite sure I’ve ever read a novel that addresses this story in this particular way.  I’ve read novels of a crumbling or fractured marriage, I’ve read ones that take place from the wife’s point of view… but never so wholly, so… I don’t want to say one-sidedly because that implies that it’s didactic in a way that it most certainly is not.  This is simply the story of this woman’s marriage, as opposed to her marriage to her husband (if that makes sense / to riff on something Roxane Gay said in her NYT review).  If that means that the husband (and the best friend and the sister and the daughter, etc etc etc) all end up feeling a little less-developed… well, that’s because we remain inside the wife’s head the whole time.  Even when the point of view shifts from first-person to third (and then back again, a trick she meta-textually calls attention to later in the only truly wrong note that the book strikes), we are still receiving this single point of view and that total surround is unlike any other story I’ve read.

And to hear the things she says… I said that I don’t know that I ever want to fall in love again and maybe that’s just because I read this book at a time when a good friend is getting out of a long relationship with someone who didn’t deserve them, when I’m starting to go on dates again, when it’s starting to be spring and spring always unsettles me.  I don’t know.  But there’s something about the overwhelming hurt that is dispatched upon the wife (and the hurt that she, too, delivers – although that is more oblique) and the somewhat defeated sense of romantic love that you take away from this book… Yes, I’m all for the idea of a fiery partnership that soothes into something more deeply rooted as children, houses, dogs, etc come into the picture – but good god is it kind of bleak from this point of view.
Although I’m not sure I can honestly call this novel (or its eventual outcome) bleak.  Regardless of how you feel about various states of feminist theory (and your opinion on those will, quite probably, color some aspect of your experience as the novel dwindles to its all-too-soon close), you can’t deny that there is a ‘correctness’ to the way the novel concludes.  And that the love that burns through these pages, for the husband and the daughter and the friends and all of them, isn’t worth it.  There is a fierce passion here, an accuracy that you can only understand if you’ve ever felt that sort of thing yourself.  I’m not old enough to have the kid understanding or the longing for a younger model or any of that – but I’ve felt that passion too and it calls to me, like the light between two distant stars simply saying ‘hello, I’m here, I know what it’s like too.’

Rating: 5 out of 5.  It is compact enough to be read in a single sitting and it almost behooves the reader to do so.  Once you slip through into its prose, you won’t want to come back up until it’s done.  There are quotables everywhere and an overwhelming sense of crystalline beauty – no, not crystalline: diamond.  This is beauty from having been compressed under unimaginable force.  It is an exceptional work.

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