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Post Road Magazine #31

Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation

Angela Palm

It's difficult to cobble together the time needed to generate creative work when a full-time job or a child's preschool hours or both dictate your schedule. For me, that kind of scheduled creative writing time usually results in falling down Internet rabbit holes that produce a fat load of nothing. After finishing revisions to my essay collection this summer, I had planned to return to working on my novel-in-progress in small chunks of time when I wasn't working my other jobs or caring for kids. Not only did this plan work completely against the nature of creating art and novel writing in particular, but I'd also gotten so deeply wrapped up in the braided essay that I found it hard to abandon the malleability of that form in favor of a linear prose narrative that would force me to write within the confines of a three-act structure. In short: I was stuck and bored. I can't work on writing that doesn't excite me. I wasn't ready to let the braided essay go just yet, but I had exhausted all the essayistic material I had in me.

When I can't write, I read, an act that feels close enough to writing to count for something. It warms the engine when it's cold. So I began reading Jenny Offill's second novel, Dept. of Speculation, recommended to me by several essay writers, and I finished it in a single day. It obliterated my reluctance to attempt fiction again. Sometimes you encounter exactly the right book at exactly the right time, as if it has found you rather than you it. Dept. of Speculation restored my love of novels in the best way.

"Life equals structure plus activity," says the book's protagonist. So, too, does a novel, where characters do and say things within sequenced scenes in which actions rise, climax, and fall. But not in this book. Dept. of Speculation has no true scenes—only flashes of scene work separated by white space. There is a bit of quoted dialogue between characters, but it's relayed piecemeal and in retrospect rather than at length in a clearly described setting which the author has carefully constructed. This book is arranged, instead, as an extended braided essay that weaves together in short and occasionally disjointed paragraphs a domestic narrative told from the perspective of a young mother reflecting on the slow dissolution of her marriage and poetic asides that speculate on the nature of, well, everything. Including: whether animals other than humans experience loneliness, the nuts and bolts of consciousness, the innerworkings of the human brain, the existence of souls. My reaction: Eureka! This is what a novel can be!

But it was more than the book's structure that excited me. The protagonist's central problem is stated early on in the text: "My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead." But she fell in love, got married, and had a baby. Well, a miscarriage and then a baby. A colicky baby. Having had a colicky baby myself, I was familiar with the sort of suspended love that cocoons such a child, the suspended life that his primary caregiver experiences, the strange loneliness that creeps in between the constant sense of failing at one of the most basic human roles and a relentless love. "The animal was ascendant," the mother states of her love for her new infant. Then, there was colic. This mother also soon discovers that she is the mother who is late to drop-off, the mother who forgets the plastic egg carton for preschool, the mother whose art stalls, the mother who was once and apparently still is lonely.

"There is still such a crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it."

Here, I realize that the story this novel's unconventional structure houses is very similar to my own life. When I read Dept. of Speculation, my seventh wedding anniversary had just passed. I had two young sons and a husband who traveled frequently for work. I often dropped my kids off, just in time for school, in a state of semi-wakefulness—fresh out of bed hair, a combination of pajamas and street clothes that were already doused in coffee. I'd look around at the other parents: happy, well dressed, chipper, hair combed and styled. What was I doing wrong?

For a while, I'd thought I was just unhappy, or lonely maybe, despite being crowded by two boisterous children almost constantly. Then I realized that I wasn't unhappy, or lonely even, but maybe that part is a stretch—there is still a crookedness in my heart. I was very happy when I was writing or doing research for writing or reading in an attempt to start writing or going to hear readings given by other writers. I was happy when I was editing work for other writers. The problem was that being an art monster and a mother and a wife at the same time was challenging. Jenny Offill nails this in Dept. of Speculation; she aptly captures the precarious position of the art-monster-mother who is in a relationship with a non-art-monster as well as all the problems that follow.

In this predicament, the art monster must initiate an aversion of crisis or else enter a full-on crisis. I initiated mine by seeking a writing residency and eating a lot of popcorn. Dept. of Speculation's narrator initiates hers by shifting from a first-person point of view to a third-person point of view. This allows her to consider her position as "the wife" and "the mother" from a more detached vantage. From this perspective, she is able to inspect her relationships differently: "...every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together with chewing gum and wire and string." They are structured to support activity. Here, the classic braided essay with its digressions and white space jerry-rig this novel's form perfectly.

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