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. When God is a mother, she is said to be everywhere." And art monsters? "It's different, with the art monsters. They are always elsewhere."
This is soul-bearing fiction at its best. The novel asks: How does a woman reconcile an intellectual or creative life with the inevitable pull of "ordinary realities?" How can she be both everywhere and elsewhere?
Midway through the novel, the wife learns that her husband is having an affair, which focuses the novel on the frailties of intimacy. The wife realizes that love hasn't fixed her crooked heart, and wonders if every marriage is "held together ... with chewing gum and wire and string," only to fall apart at a moment's notice.
The last third of the novel plunges into the aftermath of infidelity. There are whisper fights conducted after the daughter sleeps, nights spent on the couch or in an abysmal hotel room, and a tense confrontation with the other woman. In a desperate attempt to save the marriage, the wife removes her family from the city and rents a house in the country.
In the face of this marital shipwreck, "Dept. of Speculation" offers a thin slice of hope. We don't know if the marriage will survive, but there is comfort in the little acts of love that endure despite the heartbreak. The husband feeds the wood stove so the wife can stay warm and in bed; hands are held; attempts are made to write and return to creativity.
The novel offers something other than the Buddha's enlightenment or art monster's fame. "Dept. of Speculation" doesn't just resign itself to the disappointment of failed dreams that crop up in middle age. Instead, endurance to the end of a crisis generates wisdom, hope and, perhaps, even art.
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh (email@example.com). First Published January 25, 2014 7:15 PM