Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
192 pages / $22.95 buy from Amazon
When I read Michael J. Seidlinger’s list of indie lit for the year I was so excited that I stayed up until three AM all atwitter thinking about it, but for as excited as I am about the alt lit scene, the recent National Book Critics Awards finalists make it clear that the lit world at large lacks the same scope and enthusiasm.
The new Knopf book Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is especially indicative of this endemic lack of innovation and the narrow definition of literary taste that seems to grip the big five publishers.
I wish to pause to qualify my claim. Alt lit has had its moments in the sun within the big five. Amelia Gray’s Threats and Shane Jones’ stint with Penguin spring to mind, and Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun promises to be a crossover success, but, in general, these books continue to be nothing more than niche market books lost in a larger see of “literary bigwigs,” as Chriss Higgs’ post linked above stresses.
So the major problem with Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is the simple fact that it’s boring. The novel depicts the trials and tribulations of a marriage from the perspective of Offill’s unnamed “The Wife” by focusing in on the banal frustrations of marriage. And herein is the problem with the novel—it ruminates on the stagnation of marriage, the frustrations of a female novelist delayed from advancing in her career because of baby and doltish spouse, the isolation of the modern condition, but the novel falters by focusing in on the minutiae. This is well-traveled literary territory and frankly, reveling in her characters’ boredom and alluding to Keats is not the way to make a significant narrative arc.
The novel does attempt some formalistic tricks with its stream of conscious layout and there are some moments of crystalline observation, but the majority of the novel falls flat. I wanted this novel to be interesting, but ultimately it lacks the innovation that I look for in a novel which holds my attention.
In the novel the wife tries to combat static existence with yoga. “None of this is banal, if only you would attend to it,” her instructors tell her, but in the case of reading Jenny Offill’s novel and other big five books of its ilk, I don’t want to.