Dept. of Speculation

Jenny Offill

This slim novel could easily be read in a day, but I happened to read part of it on a Saturday and the rest on a Sunday morning, when I woke up far earlier than usual. It was the perfect thing for a quiet morning, the sky still lightening to day. While I’m sure some people would try to call this a lyric essay, as championed in Reality Hunger, Jenny Offill isn’t a fan of the term, which she talks about in her interview on The Bat Segundo Show. Unlike The Self Unstable, this has a stronger narrative while still reading a lot like poetry. Offill mentions in that interview how she probably reads more poetry than most fiction writers, “It’s almost like a shot in the arm of language and of structural possibilities.” She also touches on how negative space is underused in novels, how impressions of what isn’t said can make the writing more emotionally charged.

The story is about a marriage undergoing the tribulations of child-rearing and infidelity and bedbug infestations, as documented by “the wife.” The title refers to the love letters she and the husband wrote to each other, always with the return address of “Dept. of Speculation.” The story is fragmented and riddled with references, and sometimes these are cited incorrectly. Offill describes in the interview above how these quotes are “filtered through [the wife]’s mind and slightly changed.”

What’s most interesting to me about this book is hearing that more than eight publishing houses bid on it. Small books — literally books that have tiny spines on packed bookshelves — traditionally have been harder to sell to big publishers. This came up in a conversation recently, and we wondered if shorter books will find more value in the market as ebooks gain ground, since everything gets the cover view in an online store or library catalog. The actual heft becomes less important, and one upside of digital delivery is it might level the weight/volume field in literature. Of course the vying for this book can also be explained by how exceptional it is. The size and layout of the hardcover version is really lovely, so this one is a pleasure to read on many levels.