Wednesday 13 December 2017

Book review: Pared-down prose gets straight to point

The Dept. Of Speculation, Jenny Offill, Granta, £12.99

The Dept. of Speculation
The Dept. of Speculation

Eilis O'Hanlon

Years ago, I read Jenny Offill's contradictorily-titled first novel, Last Things, then sort of forgot about her.

If her second book, finally published 15 years later, is anything to go by, so did she. If it's autobiographical, that is to say, and it's hard to believe that it isn't. The narrator is a creative writing teacher in Brooklyn, like Offill, who's struggling to write her second novel, as Offill certainly seemed to do. Whether the failing marriage which dominates the pages of this new novel is based on real events is the author's own business.

The Dept. Of Speculation is a strange creation, full of contradictions. It's self-consciously pretentious and yet artlessly simple at the same time. The unnamed narrator is infuriating but sympathetic. There's a lot going on here, but it's also extremely short. It could easily be read in a few hours.

As a teacher, the narrator constantly reminds her students to attend to the significance of Point Of View. This book is a masterclass in how to shift POV effectively, as it moves from first to third to second person to dramatise the different stages of her life. There's not much story. A young woman wants to be a great artist. She meets a man. They marry. They have a child. Their apartment gets bedbugs. The marriage goes a bit wrong. They attend therapy – referred to here as the 'Little Theatre of Hurt Feelings'. They move to the country. That's it.

Plot, though, isn't the point. What story there is is told in a series of brief aphoristic paragraphs, each entirely self-contained but also meshing together to form a bigger whole, together with snippets of obscure facts (George Washington had 36 dogs) and quotations from other writers. The form captures perfectly the fragmentary nature of thought and memory in a way that feels entirely modern but also reassuringly familiar.

At one point, someone sends the narrator a philosophical book about "stimmung", the state of mind preceding a psychological breakdown, in which everything seems charged with meaning and you notice too much. This book is definitely an example of that. It's also very funny in a flat, deadpan way: "Studies show that 110 per cent of men who leave their wives for other women report that their wives are crazy ... The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three". At one point she even lists the "things that no one ever said to me", including "you make it look so easy" and "you need to take yourself more seriously" (Offill clearly loves lists).

The Dept. Of Speculation is the sort of book which, if you went through it with a pencil, underlining quotable lines, would end up being entirely underlined. I finished it in one sitting then went straight back to the beginning, wondering why other writers don't write like this, instead of clogging up their books with too many words and too many tedious plot points rather than stripping it all back down to the bones, as Offill has done so magnificently. Let's hope there won't be another 15-year wait until the next one.

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