A Button in the Dark: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation.

speculationJenny Offill’s newest novel, Dept. of Speculation, is the antidote to the giant novels that have been grabbing much of this year’s collective literary attention. Not that The Goldfinch was a bad book—it has found a giant place in my heart—but that the big ones provide an entirely different reading experience. (It would be surprising to me if this didn’t apply to that other big book of the year, The Luminaries.) Dept. of Speculation can easily be read in a single sitting, or during a single trip to a coffee house. But, despite its slimness, it manages to be neither slight nor symbolic.

The basic premise is a faltering marriage. The wife and the husband, an unnamed couple, have a daughter, and, from the wife’s perspective, the book is a fractal portrait of her life as a writer (teaching creative writing, struggling with her second book) and the existential troubles she struggles with:

There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.

Much of the novel is similarly anecdotal—the narrative is frequently interrupted with asides like this, spaces in the text and glimpses that, in a less capable writer, would make the story fall apart. Yet somehow, Offill’s magic keeps it together. (And I remember this story from a tour of The Rock when I was ten. It was the story that possessed me from that entire experience, which I tend to think about nearly every time I hear the word “bored” and tried to imagine what it would like to be in that cell.) Nearly every separate section of the novel contains something clever and memorable. I’ll include just one, on raising a child: “Of course it is difficult. You are creating a creature with a soul, my friend says.”

Sometimes the wife’s complaints are strikingly sad (“There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.”) and sometimes they are a bit annoying (“If he [the husband] notices something is broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.”) But this reader’s eye-rolling could be counted on less than a single hand, and much more common were little nods of assent, laughs, intense concentration, the desire to jump right back and read more. If I could have finished it in a single evening, I would have.

This novel, a short of diary, works because it embraces shortness, briefness, in every form—from the small sections to the brief overall length of the book. It’s wisely not about how things happened, from one thing to the next, it’s about how the events of our lives affect us—how we react to that chain of days, how we look ahead, not how the days are linked. The wife and the husband, for some time, would send each other letters with a return address of “Dept. of Speculation,” to show they really didn’t know what was going to happen in the future. “All of the letters are still in their house; he has a box of them on his desk, as does she.” Offill’s insight is that we always—much, sometimes, to our detriment—can’t help speculating.