A desire to dismantle the novel has snaked its way through contemporary fiction. Plot, character, exposition and so on have, for writers such as Sheila Heti and David Shields, come to feel rusty, tediously artificial. In response to this literary fatigue, new kinds of novels have emerged, built from fragments, quotes, mini-essays, aphorisms, chunks of real life pasted onto the page. Jenny Offill’s second novel skillfully deploys many of these elements.
Dept. of Speculation is an unsentimental account of a marriage shaken by infidelity. It is the kind of book that might be described as “spare,” since it is 179 pages long and there is plenty of white space on each page. But spare seems like the wrong word for a book so dense with intelligence and life. Offill is incisive on the pleasures, terrors and frustrations of parenthood. Caring for her baby, the narrator says, “required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious.” And although the book is often sad, it is also funny: “People keep telling me to do yoga… The only part I liked was the part at the end when the teacher covered you with a blanket and you got to pretend you were dead for 10 minutes.”
The narrator is a writer, making little progress on her second novel. She returns again and again to the tension between the claims of art and the claims of domestic life. How can one be a good parent and a great writer? Unlike the conflict between the narrator and her husband—which reaches no neat resolution, only a wary reconciliation—it is a tension that has been resolved by the end. The answer is the novel itself, which reveals depth and beauty in small, mundane things.