Friday, October 09, 2020

Book Review - Dept of Speculation

I had heard and read a fair amount of praise for Jenny Offil's Dept. of Speculation so I was excited to finally pick it up and give it a whirl. Among the reviews and details I'd heard was a lot of commentary about the style and structure of the book so I jumped in with a decent sense of what to expect. Having read the book, I can say that the plot of the book is fairly straightforward and somewhat unremarkable (at least In My Opinion) so it makes sense that most of the praise is about the structure, style and technique of the book. 

The story tells about the life of a woman over the course of a few years. It describes her dating life, her work life, her married life, her life as a mother and (*spoiler*) her life as a divorcee. The course of her life is often rather mundane, though she does have numerous sparks of interest that come off as humorous or at least a little intriguing (for example, her work as a fact checker or ghost writing for an 'almost astronaut'). Even though it's not entirely predictable, the plot line felt very familiar and didn't really strain the reader too much to dive into the life of the narrator.

The book is arranged as a bunch of short chapters populated by a bunch of short paragraphs composed of short sentences. It gave me a stream-of-consciousness meets mental scrapbook kind of vibe. A lot of the terse sentences (and even the paragraphs) could have come from someone's Twitter feed. These rapid fire thoughts made the entire novel very easy to race through, almost skimming the pages without meaning to. Numerous times I found that I had devoured 20 pages in a matter of a few minutes and, while I felt like I understood the plot/story progression I read, I ended up wanting to circle back and re-read in order to nibble the nuances again. 

...And that's where the book shines. Even though the short twitter-like format allows for quick digestion, the individual thoughts and sentences don't feel rushed. The language is natural and comfortable but it is also very thoughtful and has plenty of significance. Each section deals with common, run-of-the-mill activities and interactions but the language really makes each moment seem more alive. 

 Offill showcases great skill in her narrative structure. She compiles a dynamic work of art by interlacing thousands of brief snippets of sentences and paragraphs into a fragile house of words. She develops her characters through peripheral interactions and playful manipulation of the timeline of events. The story is told from the woman's point of view but her point of view and her language changes at certain points in the novel, mirroring the narrator's mental and emotional state and perhaps her sense of understanding and belonging in the world she's narrating. The art, skill and technique of the book are certainly worth investigating and I would not be surprised at all to see this book on the curriculum of a Creative Writing or Literary Analysis course. 

All of that said, this narrative style isn't always my favorite. I never have been a huge fan of the stream of consciousness technique and I haven't grabbed onto stories written as social media posts. I certainly admire the poetic hard work that comes in refining the words into something so conscise while still retaining meaning but I still end up left wanting more meat, more substance. 

I frequently smiled at the brief quips and one-off insights that the narrator drops. I nodded and enjoyed many of the poignant or insightful observations about relationships, people or the world in general. I was emotionally stirred at the plight of this young wife and mother as she struggled to find her place in the world only to have it tossed into upheaval. I felt familiarity as she explained her mental and emotional anguishes amid the trials of life. I enjoyed the book generally and appreciated the art and structure of if. I just didn't Love the novel in a way that left me gushing about it in the way I'd heard so many reviewers do over the past few years. I found it to be an intriguing read from an artistic and aesthetic sense more than from an entertaining sense. Let me know your thoughts. Have you read this novel? What did you love or not love about it? 


3 out of 5 stars

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