Friday, June 09, 2023

the last book I read

Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

There is a woman. A woman with no name. Well, presumably she has a name in her actual life (yes, yes, all right, fictional life) but we're never told what it is. She meets a man, also nameless, and they start up a relationship which eventually leads to marriage and the arrival of a daughter. 

Having children changes the dynamic of the relationship, as it always does, and both parents' concerns shift towards keeping a small person alive and entertained rather than indulging themselves and each other. Moreover, while both have jobs it's the wife ("the wife" is how she's referred to pretty much exclusively for most of the book) who has to make most of the sacrifices to accommodate childcare needs - hey, because patriarchy, amirite, ladies?

So the husband (again, this is how he is referred to, although the story is told exclusively from the wife's point of view) is off at work while the wife is at home watching CBeebies in her slippers. She is a writer and teacher of writing so there is at least the possibility of doing some work during this time, and she does a couple of writing projects, notably a sort of general history of space exploration in collaboration with an ex-astronaut, though she struggles to find a fresh angle on the well-known material. 

Meanwhile hubby is out and about in the office, just hanging out, having lunch with colleagues without a care in the world, and, eventually, having an affair with an attractive young redheaded colleague. I mean I don't want to imply that this is inevitable behaviour; many men (including, just to be clear, me) manage to return to work while their wives are still on maternity leave without feeling the need to put it about relentlessly. The part that probably is inevitable is the part where the wife finds out and is, understandably, not pleased. After an awkward confrontation and a bit of A Scene between the three points of the love triangle outside the husband's office, it is agreed that wife, husband and daughter will uproot from urban New York and try to patch things up in a more rural environment with trees and grass and squirrels and shit.

So far, so meh, you might say: why, this is a perfectly commonplace tale told a thousand times before. There's a couple of answers to that: firstly every tale of conflict and woe has some properties that are uniquely its own, and secondly if you're not going to write a plot-driven heart-pounding arse-quaking thrillathon about sending an army of zombie Hitler clones to reboot the Sun then you might consider doing something interesting and unusual with novel style and structure instead. In this particular case that means the whole novel is written as a series of short paragraphs, many conveying something mostly tangential to the plot but hopefully coalescing into some deeper meaning. 

Ironically this works best in the first half of the book where the tone is much more meandering and discursive; about halfway through the viewpoint shifts from first- to third-person (though still with the wife as the focus) and adopts much more of a linear narrative to describe the marital breakdown. I think this second part is less effective, partly from just being a more orthodox narrative cut up and mucked around with a bit. 

This New York Times review asks the following question about the wife's unwritten second novel, referred to a couple of times in the book:

What is this novel? Why hasn’t it been written?

There is a sense in which one might ask the same question of Dept. Of Speculation itself. It's a very delicate balancing act writing a novel as trimmed of extraneous fat as this: you have to be careful not to trim away so much that you lose a sense of what's actually going on. I should add that this doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it; the structure works pretty well and some of the stuff about childbirth and early-years parenthood is very insightful, and, heck, it's 177 pages of widely-spaced narrow paragraphs so it's very quick to read. 

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