A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
Dept. of Speculation is a short, striking, but stinging portrait of a marriage. Our nameless narrator is a woman who never intended to be married or have a family, aiming instead to be an “art monster”, but life had other plans. It so often does.
She takes us through her adult life, from those footloose and fancy-free post-student days, through meeting a man who plays city soundscapes on late-night radio, to marrying him, having a child, then him having an affair and the marriage teetering on the edge of the precipice. It is the story of a life most ordinary: mundane, thrilling, boring, devastating.
What is interesting about it, though, is the way it is told through short vignettes: postcards from normality. Relatively short paragraphs surrounded by wide white gaps, each one a snapshot of life. Some of the most arresting moments, for me at least, depict the weird combination of joy, fear, and frustration of parenthood:
“Put a hat on that baby,” said every old biddy that passed me. But the devil baby cleverly dispatched with them to ride bareheaded in the freezing rain and wind.
Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say.
That swirl of hair on the back of her head. We must have taken a thousand pictures of it.
I easily read the whole book in a single sitting. Yes, it is less than 200 pages of widely spaced text, but it is also beautifully, hypnotically written. Offill has skillfully balanced the narrator’s voice so that it is both deeply honest and just detached enough to keep us readers at arm’s length. We may know exactly how she feels about her marriage, but we don’t know her name. Instead, the characters are referred to by their roles: the wife, the husband, the baby. In that sense, then, it is a reminder that life happens to us all, and any of this could happen – and does happen – to you.
Dept. of Speculation was shortlisted for the Folio Prize last year, and deservedly so. Its very ordinariness is exactly what makes it so absorbing to read. There was a fifteen year gap between this and Offill’s first novel, Last Things. I hope it isn’t another fifteen years until her third.