In my first creative writing class at the University of Arizona, we experimented with stream-of-consciousness writing, a technique in which the writer plunges into writing in a random format with no regard to syntax, logistic sequences or reality.
I was intrigued — captivated, really — and began to obsess over finding authors who could capture the most stunning and witty stream-of-consciousness in their writing. It struck a resonating chord with me. It felt real. It was a writing form that worked like my mind works: rarely organized and constantly running. I read Kerouac, Burroughs, Bukowski and Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Plath and Eliot. And then I stumbled across a lovely book one afternoon, “Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offill.
Simply put, “Dept. of Speculation” is a novel about modern marriage. Complexly put, “Dept. of Speculation” is an examination of what it is to be human both physically and emotionally.
In one word, this book is pithy. It packs a punch in a little less than 200 pages. Our characters are the wife, the husband, the daughter, the best friend, the yoga teacher and the philosopher (all unnamed) among a few others, all viewed from the wife’s perspective. With unmatched fluidity, poetic language mixed with facts and quotes, Offill constructs this novel unlike any I have read before.
It is a heartbreaking story about a marriage, the trials it endures and the impact it has on the protagonist’s life. It is about her journey to find happiness in a bleak and meaningless life and her struggle to brave each day and overpower the helplessness she feels.
The book begins lightheartedly and catalogs the wife’s relationships with those around her — her friends, her husband, her philosopher friend — and the birth of her child. It captures moments of compassion and heartwarming moments like lying in bed with her husband and child: “Soon everyone is asleep but me. I lie in our bed and listen to the hum of the air conditioner and the soft sound of their breathing. Amazing. Out of dark waters, this.”
It features letters she and her husband exchange with the return address always marked “Dept. of Speculation,” and transitions into the more harrowing aspects of modern life, the struggles of marriage, her husband’s affair with a younger woman and their efforts to change the outcome.
The narrator has a charming and relatable voice through the longing and emptiness she feels. Her endearing observations make you sympathetic to her experiences (“I only wanted you to adore me”) so that it is difficult to put the book down for fear of missing the next prophetic line. If you are an avid reader like me, you are well accustomed to the empty feeling you have after finishing a wonderful book — the void, the feeling of detachment, the need to keep your relationship with the book going. After completing “Dept. of Speculation,” I felt more than that. I cried over the sheer beauty, the emotion Offill elicited in me and the desire to savor every sentence once again.
• Jenny Offill is the author of several children’s and nonfiction books. “Dept. of Speculation” is her second novel. It was published in January by Knopf Books. It retails for $22.95.
• Randi Valdez works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in this space each week.