In 1999, Jenny Offill published her first novel, Last Things, written in the voice of a girl caught between her passive scientist father and her mother, an increasingly unstable fabulist who takes her daughter on the run to nowhere in particular. Startlingly assured in inhabiting a child’s perspective, it was a cousin to another pair of American debuts, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which were also road-tripping first-person narratives about perceptive girls trying to navigate the reality-distortion fields created by the half-mad women in charge of their lives. Last Things heralded Offill, then thirty, as a major new talent, but as with Robinson, years and years went by without a second novel.
“I published my first novel at 30 and things seemed like they were going one way, but then pregnancy, motherhood, chronic illness—in short, Life, with a capital L—derailed me and for a long time I stopped writing,” Offill told the Literary Review in 2011. “I felt very much like I’d run into the station to use the bathroom and then the train left, and ever since I’ve been living in a small, strange town trying to learn the language.”
Offill started, then abandoned, a book about Nikola Tesla; she taught creative writing, edited anthologies, worked on children’s books, and had a daughter of her own. Meanwhile, she apparently did learn something like a new language. The arrival of Dept. of Speculation, fourteen years after Last Things, is exciting not only because we’ve waited so long for its arrival but also because it’s so different from its predecessor in form, style, and tone. (And point of view: While Last Things looked at a mother through a young daughter’s eyes, much of Speculation does the opposite.) Offill’s mode is faster now, more streamlined, at times purposely rushed; it’s episodic and mock epigrammatic in the vein of Lydia Davis, with infusions of Lorrie Moore’s mordant, laughing-instead-of-screaming wit. The transformative influence of motherhood and all its attendant pressures and complications, Offill has said, also enforced a transformation of her writing. “Motherhood changes what you think about, what you write about,” she said to the Literary Review. “I’m trying to capture that now.”
Dept. of Speculation brilliantly captures the geography, ambience, and insomniac surreality of the “small, strange town” that is the early years of motherhood for an Offill-like narrator who always assumed she’d become an “art monster,” like Faulkner or Nabokov. (“Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things,” she writes. “Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”) The narrator publishes her first novel as she turns thirty, just before Life with a capital L descends upon her—and there are many other apparent parallels with Offill’s life, which might be why Speculation often reads like a particularly piquant and tightly structured diary. (An encomium to the fluorescent-lit aisles of Rite Aid as a magical balm for colicky babies is grafted from a personal essay Offill wrote for the blog Moistworks.)
Whatever his advantages in the marketplace, the male art monster is possibly less likely to know how to marry content and style in depicting the perpetual-motion inner machinery of an unmonstrous new parent who is short on everything—time, money, sleep, and cognitive space to write: Be fast, get it down, get to the point. The story often proceeds in short, sharp bursts, in perfectly crystallized vignettes, or in pungent little jokes, as when the narrator finds herself “having little conversations in my head with the punk rock kids upstairs”: “You know what’s punk rock about marriage? All the puke and shit and piss.” Or when she simply reproduces a line that a teacher friend constantly finds herself writing on students’ papers: “WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE? WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?”
The narrator’s sensation of being untethered, unmoored, is intensified by a thankless ghostwriting gig she takes with an obnoxious ex-astronaut, which sends her down rabbit holes of research on the psychological toll of space exploration. (It may send the reader down a similarly lengthy Wiki-walk, especially when Offill broaches the horribly sad story of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov’s last flight.) Add this uncredited work and the unheralded, largely invisible labor of child care to the countless hours of maintenance required to deal with a bedbug infestation—a household nightmare that the narrator largely keeps a secret—and Dept. of Speculation becomes a darkly hilarious account of a maddening contradiction at the heart of the narrator’s life: crushing amounts of work completed at the end of every day, yet no right to a sense of achievement. “‘Where is that second novel?’ the head of my department asks me. ‘Tick tock. Tick tock.’”
But Dept. of Speculation does not really hit the panic button until exactly halfway through, when first person switches to third person and “I” becomes “the wife,” a disassociation compelled by the husband’s affair with a younger woman. The wife’s chain of responses ranges from the pragmatic to the (understandably) deranged, sometimes in the same moment, and much of the last movement of the novel is taken up with whether or not the marriage is irreparably damaged, left too long without oxygen while the supply was consumed by work and child care and work and astronauts and work and bedbugs and lusty-clichéd midlife crises and work, work, work.
In Offill’s Moistworks essay, she makes an observation about NASA astronauts that also allegorizes her own novel: “ NASA was careful to schedule every minute of an astronaut’s time, filling it up with endless tasks and experiments. Some of this was important, but some of it was just busywork. . . . The theory was that astronauts should never find themselves in space with time on their hands, that it was safer this way. Because otherwise they might truly see the Earth floating beneath them. Because otherwise they might realize where they were and what they’d done.” Dept. of Speculation makes it clear that the near-universal, everyday slog of marriage and children both induces and staves off that same annihilating vertigo, mapping out a world where barely ever having time to think makes those precious moments of thinking all the more urgent, if not terrifying.
Jessica Winter is an editor at Slate.