Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Scenes from a Marriage Jenny Offill Explores Love's Illusions in Her Second Novel

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Scenes from a Marriage Jenny Offill Explores Love's Illusions in Her Second Novel

Article excerpt

"DEPT. OF SPECULATION"

By Jenny Offill.

Knopf ($22.95).

In 1999, Jenny Offill published "Last Things," which tells the story of a mother's descent into madness from the perspective of her 8-year-old daughter. Fifteen years later, Ms. Offill returns with a second novel, "Dept. of Speculation." It's been a long time coming but well worth the wait. This slim novel of 160 pages can be read in a single sitting, but is so beautifully written that it begs multiple reads. "Dept. of Speculation" tells the story of a woman as she marries, becomes a parent, and tries to balance her ambition to write fiction with the demands of domesticity. This is a well-worn topic in fiction, but it's the style of Ms. Offill's narrative that sets "Dept. of Speculation" apart.

The story is not straightforwardly realist. Short diary-like paragraphs about the narrator's life are juxtaposed with quotes from well-known writers and thinkers and anecdotes from history and myth. Survival in outer space is likened to surviving a bed bug infestation; Donald Barthelme's advice that aspiring writers stop eating and sleeping in order to read everything contrasts with a litany of volunteer requests that besiege mothers.

An anecdote about the Buddha leaving his wife and 2-day-old son in order to gain enlightenment contrasts with the narrator's desire to be close with her child. These unique pairings allow the author to make striking new connections through hilarious, poignant irony.

During their courtship, the narrator and her future husband would write each other letters, with Dept. of Speculation as the return address. Once married, the narrator refers to herself as "the wife," and confesses: "My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters concern themselves with art, never mundane things"

The irony doesn't stop there. The narrator quotes from a 19th- century conduct book for young housewives, which cautions that the reading of novels will cause a woman to feel a "contempt for ordinary realities" The wife muses on the gender differences in creation myths: "When God is a father, he is said to be elsewhere. …

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