Dept. of Speculation

What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

Somehow, I was sure Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation would read very much like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, a much-praised book, which I unfortunately have to admit, I really didn’t like at all. And so the Department … stayed unvisited for a long time.

A few days ago I heard the Department hailed yet again, this time by NYTimes reviewers Gregory Cowles, John Williams & Pamela Paul. Encourage by their praise, I finally decided it was time to give it a go.

And what a wonderful text I am discovering!:

A student asked Donald Barthelme how he might become a better writer. Barthelme advised him to read through the whole history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics up through the modern-day thinkers. The student wondered how he could possibly do this. “You’re probably wasting time on things like eating and sleeping,” Barthelme said. “Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature.” Also art, he amended. Also politics.

What T. S. Eliot said: When all is said and done the writer may realize that he has wasted his youth and wrecked his health for nothing.

Offill’s style is short, smart, sad & funny. Her text; very personal, very intimate, is full of all kinds of digressions — lines of flight where you can let your own thoughts roam & ramble. In some ways she reminds me of Maggie Nelson, but there is a kind of subtlety attached to even the most anxiety ridden experiences here, and so maybe Mary Ruefle would be a better comparison. But be warned – if you are looking for a Jamison read-alike, this is definitively not it.

Offill is writing a history of family life, but what makes this text more than a personal account of troubled times, is the way the author manages to blend small and big stories (history & History) as if there is no distance between the I & the cultural history of the world:  

Someone has given my daughter a doctor’s kit. Carefully, she takes her own temperature, places the pressure cuff around her arm. Then she takes the cuff off and examines it. “Would you like to be a doctor when you grow up?” I ask her. She looks at me oddly. “I’m already a doctor,” she says.

In the year 134 B.C., Hipparchus observed a new star. Until that moment he had believed steadfastly in the permanence of them. He then set out to catalog all the principal stars so as to know if any others appeared or disappeared.

And then the weight of it all:

How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.

Capturing the monkey-mind mid-process, midstream.

Once ether was everywhere. The crook of an arm, say. (Also the heavens.) It slowed the movement of the stars, told the left hand where the right hand went. Then it was gone, like hysteria, like the hollow earth. The news came over the radio. There is only air now. Abandon your experiments.


All quotations from: Offill, Jenny. Dept. of Speculation (Vintage Contemporaries) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Oh, now I am interested! (I, too, was disappointed by Jamison’s book).

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