Losing Everything: Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation”

Dept of SpeculationWhat does it feel like to lose what matters most? It feels like life is askant, disoriented, even though you are surrounded by friends, children, and meaningful work. That’s why Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation (Vintage, 2014) works.

Dept. of Speculation is short and could be read in a single sitting. The story is about a marriage in trouble. Although the two are very different books (and Offill’s is not religious in any distinct way), readers of C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961) will notice a similar disclosure of the inward self through reflection on psychological states and a unique capacity to convey feelings of loss and despair.

Offill’s aphoristic style brings a sense of disjunction to the narrative. Reading Dept. of Speculation is like reading a diary over a writer’s shoulder or listening to a heartbroken friend share disjointed thoughts in a series of voice messages. Here are a few examples:

My friend who teaches writing sometimes flips out when she is grading stories and types the same thing over and over again. (66)

Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits. (92)

Evolution designed us to cry out if we are being abandoned. To make as much noise as possible so the tribe will come back for us. (108)

She sends her best friend a text. “11pm. Husband still playing video games.” There is a little ping. The husband looks at her. “You sent that to me.”

The story starts slow, but Dept. of Speculation captures the profoundly disorienting feeling of loss—the confusion and bewilderment that emerges in the fragments of broken promises, of dreams unraveled—better than any book I have read in a long time. If literature can help us to understand our neighbor’s experiences (or even make sense of our own), then this story (named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of 2014) is certainly worth reading, and even feeling.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at History, Humanity, and Ha Jin’s “Nanjing Requiem.”

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