I read the novel Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill last year. It’s a short book about a disintegrating marriage. Nice, young happy couple gets married, has a child and not-so-unusually finds themselves dealing with life problems from a colicky baby to ambitions gone off course and a relationship that seems to have lost its way.
I actually “reread” this novel after listening to it as an audiobook. I rewrote my review on Goodreads after that second round and gave it an upgrade.
Something I liked on both passes was how she uses scientific facts, proverbs, quotes from Yeats, Kafka, Rilke the Stoics and others and integrates them into the book.
You could read this book in a day (it took me two sessions because I don’t binge read anymore) but I suggest you slow down.
By the way “Dept. of Speculation” was the couple’s code name for the uncertainties that lay ahead that thy speculated about in their married life.
It’s not your typical novel and it’s hard to summarize the plot and the structure. Is it a love story? I think so. Comedy or tragedy? Uh huh.
Here’s another little addition to the novel. On Goodreads, authors sometimes (rarely) add notes to their book’s page. Jenny did that.
She illuminates a passage from her book. Here are a few examples I picked from the novel and her notes.
The Buddhists say that wisdom may be attained by reaching the three marks. The first is an understanding of the absence of self. The second is an understanding of the impermanence of all things. The third is an understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary experience.
Jenny adds: I like to read Buddhist philosophy because it always seems simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. Oh, ok, I just need to remember that there is no self and everything dies, and nothing will ever seem good enough. Off I go! I grew up Christian and the part where you could just speak to Jesus about what was in your heart felt undeniably easier.
The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
Jenny: “When I was in college, I took an introductory Buddhism class and I heard this idea. I never forgot it because it suggested that there were so many possibilities of how to think and feel, and I glimpsed that I was one of those people that always lingered in the miserable three.”
And a reader adds: “I believe the three [states] are craving (wanting what we don’t have), aversion (not wanting what we do have) and clinging (wanting what we have to stay the same, when everything is always changing). Bottom line? Suffering = not accepting Now just the way it is… Freedom from suffering = accepting Now, knowing it will change…”
In her novel, she also offers this bit of Stoic philosophy: A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.
Jenny: “I recommend this experiment. It really works. I have made use of it at many points in my life when I felt bored or trapped.”
Q. Why couldn’t the Buddhist vacuum in corners?
A. Because she had no attachments.
The Zen master Ikkyu was once asked to write a distillation of the highest wisdom. He wrote only one word: Attention.
The visitor was displeased. “Is that all?”
So Ikkyu obliged him. Two words now.
I’m going on to her 2020 novel, Weather, next.