Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill coverIn this book the characters from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts grow up, get married, have babies, strive, fail, strive again, fail again, take sleeping pills and whisper-fight in the dark….OK, it’s not the Peanuts gang, but there is something in the tone and in the characters of Dept. of Speculation that reminded me strongly of the Peanuts strip at its wisest, most epigrammatic, most Zen.

The novel is a very short read but it lingers long. I read it twice in a row because it felt so good the first time and because, like all small near-perfect things, it’s easy to miss hidden glories at first gulp.

Dept. of Speculation is told from the perspective of a woman whose name we are never told. It covers her early adult to middle-aged years during which she travels, meets and marries ‘the husband’, has a baby, nearly goes demented from lack of sleep and frustrated ambition (she is a writer) and deals in both mad and sane ways with a crisis in her marriage. Not a ground-breaking plot, then, but, my, is it beautiful and funny.

Originally ‘the wife’ had planned never to marry:

I was going to be a an art monster instead. Women don’t 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.

Her best friend, ‘the philosopher’, is working nights at the local radio station and introduces her to a male colleague. She falls in love and the colleague becomes ‘the husband’. They build a home together – a badly-needed haven to soothe her awkward, artistic, over-thinking, sensitive character and to provide respite for the husband from his ever-helpful, polite and giving mode of being. “The reason to have a home,” the wife says, “is to keep certain people in and certain other people out. A home has a perimeter.”

The wife has a miscarriage. The husband makes her a dinner of all the things she hadn’t been allowed to eat (“…cured meat, unpasteurised cheese. Two bottles of wine.”) She has a successful pregnancy. The baby screams all the time. She quotes an experiment where a number of cats are placed on cat-sized islands in the middle of a pool. When the cats fall asleep they relax, drop into the water and wake up. The cats go crazy from sleep deprivation. So does she. One of her character traits seems to be an unfocused anger. She observes herself with distaste. She notes how good she is at hating compared to her husband:

I hate often and easily. I hate, for example, people who sit with their legs splayed. People who claim to give 110 percent. People who call themselves ‘comfortable’ when what they mean is decadently rich. You’re so judgmental, my shrink tells me, and I cry all the way home.

The baby is described without sentimentality but with the sort of pitch-perfect detail that must surely come from real life:

Later, when it’s time for her to go to bed, she puts both legs in one side of her footy pyjamas and slyly waits for us to notice.


My husband reads [her favourite book, about firemen] to her every night, including, very very slowly the entire copyright page.

Thus we have the home, the family unit.

The family unit might be more or less intact and functional but the wife seems to be getting more stressed and frustrated. Depressed even. ‘People’ keep telling her to do yoga. The head of the department (where she teaches creative writing) asks her where her second novel is. “Tick tock, tick tock” he says.

She’s commissioned to ghostwrite a book for an ‘almost astronaut’ about the history of the space programme. She’s busy, working, but formlessly unhappy:

Sometimes at night I conduct interviews with myself.

What do you want?

I don’t know.

What do you want?

I don’t know.

What seems to be the problem?

Just leave me alone.

References to the wife’s vague, amorphous unhappiness are like spikes shredding the rich silk of her life. It’s not quite clear what’s wrong. The difficulties and frustrations of being a mother, wife, teacher and hired hack when you’ve had aspirations to be an art monster (and people keep asking you where your second book is) are clearly part of it but are not the full explanation. She is angsty and melancholic anyway. Then, suddenly, there’s a real, clear and certain crisis in her marriage. It might happen suddenly but we learn the exact nature of the crisis slowly. It nearly fells her completely. Nearly, but not quite. The rest of the book (about a third) deals with the crisis and its aftermath.

Doe this sound dire? It isn’t, it so isn’t. The writing throughout is simple, clear, funny and often beautiful. I’ll quote a number of passages that illustrate this. Hopefully they will also illustrate why I was reminded of Peanuts at its most philosophical:

I went over to the philosopher’s apartment. ‘Oh no, what have you done?’ I said. He made me breakfast and told me about his date. ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ she’d asked him. ‘How about ten? How about fifteen?’ By the time he walked home, they were thirty years in. I told him it sounded like a duck and a bear going on a date. The philosopher considered this. ‘More like a duck and a martini,’ he said.


That night I bring up my old art-monster plan. ‘Road not taken,’ my husband says.


Three things no one has ever said about me:

You make it look so easy.

You are very mysterious.

You need to take yourself more seriously.


Sometimes she just stands and looks out the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga live.


‘I just feel…’ she says. The shrink cuts her off. ‘I know. I know, everyone always knows exactly what you feel, don’t they?’


‘Do you know why I love you?’ My daughter asks me. She’s floating in the bath water, her head lathered white. ‘Why?’ I say. ‘Because I am your mother,’ she tells me.

And finally:

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)

Charlie Brown, surely?

A brief word on structure and form. It is an experimental novel in that we never learn the names of the main characters and, for half the novel, ‘the wife’ is addressing a ‘you’ who is ‘the husband’; in the second half she becomes ‘the wife’ and the book reads in the third person (‘Right, the wife thinks, Gotcha.’). The book is broken into short paragraphs with lots of white spaces between them. These paragraphs progress the story in the usual way, but are interspersed with quotes from Buddhism, Keats, personality questionnaires, student evaluation forms and whatever and whoever else the wife might have on her mind. This might make the book sound hard and weird, but it isn’t at all. It’s easy (as in easy-to-follow) but it has a deep and abiding effect. Phrases, sentences, whole passages keep coming back to you when you’re doing other things. This book gets inside your head. She, the wife, is so real she could be your sister, your neighbour or your friend. You don’t always empathise with her but you do always care about her.

The NZ Listener said this was quite possibly the novel of the year and I agree. An early review expected it to be on the Booker shortlist. It wasn’t but it should have been.

I loved it and I’d love to know what other people thought of it.

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