There is a scene in Jenny Offill's Dept of Speculation in which the writer protagonist bumps into a man she used to know. "I think I must have missed your second book," he says. The writer explains that there isn't one. "Did something happen?" he asks kindly. "Yes," she says, in a plume of understatement. What "happens" in this brilliant, risk-taking novel is the conflict between routine and obligation pitched against all the other things we'd rather be doing. Offill, who teaches creative writing at Columbia University, published her debut novel, Last Things, 15 years ago; a follow-up novel can bring its own problems. In Dept of Speculation she writes about a woman who is a creative-writing teacher, has published one book and is struggling to write another. She meets a man. They marry and have a child. So far so metafictional. "There is still such crookedness in my heart," she says. "I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it." The woman, often referred to as "the wife", interposes her experience of relationships and family by quoting philosophical questions, proverbs, poetry and astronomy. (She takes a job ghostwriting a book about space.)
The themes may seem familiar – the story of a marriage, the quest for identity – but Offill tells it with mesmerising skill. Near the start, she says, “Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart”. This offers a structural starting point. On the page the novel resembles something fragmentary: wide margins surround very short paragraphs, and each works as a standalone vignette. These staccato sections are infinitely quotable, and each paragraph break demands that the reader stop to absorb what’s being said.
At the heart of the book, though, is a balancing act, of the uneasy equipoise of art versus family and the drill of ordinary life obliterating any whiff of creativity. The wife says she longs to be “an art monster”, and the book works as a thought-provoking exploration of motherhood. The main character grapples with the newness of it, with the isolation and with the way a woman’s identity can be subsumed by gender roles. “You come home and ask ‘what did you do today?’ and I’d try to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.” She speaks of the terror of watching the door close as her husband goes to work and of being alone with her child. “The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black and . . . she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body was the island she’d washed up on.”
The couple move along the relationship spectrum from wooing with letters that contain the same return address (the titular Dept of Speculation) to fraught disintegration, when it becomes clear the husband loves someone else. They “whisper-fight in bed in the dark when their daughter is asleep”, and the wife demands to know what the other woman is like. “Taller? Thinner? Quieter?” “Easier,” he says, and she wonders: “Did I unkind and ungood and untrue him?”
Given the weight of her subjects, Offill manages to instil her fragmented observations with humour, even if it’s of the darkest variety. There are countless one-liners: “That night on TV I saw the tattoo I wished my life had warranted. If you have not known suffering, love me. A Russian murderer beat me to it.” She takes a yoga class for sick and old people but still can’t master it. “The only part I liked was at the end when the teacher covered you with a blanket and you got to pretend that you were dead for 10 minutes.”
Offill has a gift for distillation and for saying something extraordinary in a handful of words. The slight size of this book belies the depth of exploration and ideas at work. Dept of Speculation is astute and affecting on the politics of relationships and the burdens of day-to-day living; of children, work and the feeling that life is passing us by. Offill has created a masterpiece that is philosophical, funny and moving. This is a book that's not easily forgotten. Let's hope it's not another 15 years before her next.