Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dept. of Speculation: On Grief Bacon and Bed Bugs...and Marriage

Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation (out today) is a really hard novel about which to write anything coherent. First of all, it's not really a novel — it's closer to a long short story. As well, it's closer to a piece of modern art in words than it is a novel. And like a painting you stare at with relaxed eyes until meaning reveals itself, as you read these short snippets of text, of quotes from philosophers and scientists, and of actual story, an affecting tale of a marriage in trouble rises to the surface. Then, before you know it (it's only 176 pages, and it's really much shorter than that), it's over and you're paging through it again to remind yourself what a truly unique book this is.

The story is about a woman living in New York City who marries a musician. The nameless woman is a published novelist, but has failed to produce a second book, and is ghost writing a memoir of a cheesy failed astronaut to help pay the bills.

They have a daughter. They get bed bugs in their small NYC apartment. The woman's sister and friends husbands have affairs.

"She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.”

Her husband has an affair. The wife nearly loses her mind. She reads an adultery book, and they go to counseling, which she dubs The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. They work at reconciliation. They reconcile.

And that's it. But that's SO not it.

One of the measures of a really talented writer, a writer I'll read no matter what s/he is writing about, is one that can describe something in a way no one has before. And that's what Offill does here. She describes this relatively mundane story of a marriage in crisis in a way that's never been done. And that's what makes this novel really notable.

When Offill is telling about the bed bugs, she includes snippets about astronauts feeling trapped and confined to convey how the wife and her husband felt in their apartment. She includes short lines of philosophy to capture a mood. And she includes a description of the German word kummerspeck, which literally means "grief bacon," but is used to describe overeating due to emotional trauma (my favorite part of the novel). She makes jokes, "I have an intern. All of my life now appears to be one happy moment." She includes actual jokes ("Why couldn't the Buddhist vacuum in corners? Because she had no attachments.") She tells anecdotes. She yells at us. She whispers to us. It really is just mesmerizing.

If you've never heard of Offill or this novel, I'd highly recommend it, just for a reading experience you won't find every day. Again, because this is very short, it's rather a low-risk, very high-reward prospect. This is one of the first highly buzzed novels of 2014, and my guess is that you'll find it is, indeed, rewarding.


  1. Grief bacon is such a wonderful, atrocious concept, isn't it?

    I so loved this book (and struggled to write anything coherent about it), and am glad to see it getting so much attention today. Excellent point about its length making it low-risk, high-reward, too. I'm not sure it would have even worked in any longer form.

  2. This is one of those books that is so much easier to quote from or just throw at people than it is to summarize. Like Kerry said, I'm glad to see it getting so much love, I hope it finds its way into the hands of a ton of readers.

  3. Seems like everyone is reviewing this right now. And everyone has such great things to say about it. Thanks for your review.

  4. maybe it was mold rage