by Daniel Brown

In the past two years or so, America has generated some fantastic new young writers, among them Amber Dermott, Jim Gavin, Jamie Quatro, Eleanor Henderson, Chad Harwick all come to mind.  Now, there is the remarkable Jenny Offill, she of the unfortunate name, with her second novel, Dept. of Speculation. When a New York writer can take ingredients such as first jobs, first apartments, first post-college friends, and the like, and make this seemingly mundane and much overworked material into a dazzling tapestry, as Offill has, the joys are that much greater, because more toughly achieved.

The novel revolves around an Offill-like character, a single woman in New York with just a couple of friends, who falls in love with a man from Ohio, marries him, and they have a daughter: that’s the raw material Offill puts on the counter before she begins to cook.  She makes the female character often difficult, quite self-absorbed, a lousy wife and homemaker, while her husband seems more “together”, easier to live with, and the like.  But her fierce love for her daughter is truly brilliantly rendered, often in its most mundane moments: Offill is able to transcend the mundane into the magical, even the mystical.  She writes in brief, clipped sentences which are pithy, robust and planed to a perfect sheen.  Many of her observations are thoughts in her mind, speculative, if you will, as she is both writer, observer, and narrator concurrently.  She makes the stuff of daily living frequently hilarious, as when their apartment is attacked by bedbugs, and they want to go out to a party: they have to cook the clothes they are going to wear, and the like.  Offill is superb at describing the claustrophobia of urban life in spaces that are too small, and where people, thus, need to be on their toes, slightly more polite than they may be in suburbia: this is an incredible astute observation, and part of what makes New York remain civil.

The marriage teeters, the husband strays, and the wife’s almost out of control emotions veer and leer around the apartment, on neighborhood streets, and even into his office.  A certain amount of raw yet brilliantly worded hysteria is assumed and allowed amongst intelligent New Yorkers, and Offill frequently makes the “shrink” in the book appear foolish and even a little nasty.  The narrator’s main confidant is her sister, and an old male friend known simply as “the philosopher”, where she can hang her hat and get a meal and cry as she wishes to an understanding audience.  Having determined that a change in venue never saves a marriage, she borrows her sister’s falling down cottage which does save the marriage and the two parties reach a much deeper understanding, while keeping an eye on their very feisty daughter, whom we watch at first hate and then love country living.  The novel is oddly moving as it slowly moves from mental space to mental space, but Offill is unusually prescient in her observations about people and their weaknesses and awarenesses, making Dept. of Speculation a loving and astute novel of considerable depth, beautifully written, and artfully precocious.

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