Dept. of Speculation
In the first half-hour of reading this book I found myself reaching for my phone over and over again. I kept wanting to clip out lines for Twitter or Tumblr, or so that I could put them into the inevitable review I’d write. But I realized I’d be copying the whole damn thing. Every single shimmering, truthful line has my heart gripped in its little serifed fist.
Fucking hell, this book. I type into my phone. I mean, fuck.
I’m thirty pages in and already I know: I will never write anything this good. Never.
Back in January I attended a photography workshop, one evening of which involved the students all showing each other their portfolios. Afterwards, I was chatting with one of the other photographers there, and I mentioned how struck I was by his work.
“I always find it so impressive to see someone conjure up an image, to construct something that didn’t exist before, completely from your imagination,” I said.
“But that’s what all art is,” he responded. “Making something out of nothing.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “But it can also be taking one thing and turning it into something else, right?”
I asked Juliette the other day if she thought I was observant. She cocked her head and thought a moment. “You can be,” she said finally. “Sometimes you can be kind of oblivious, but you notice a lot of things that I don’t. And I think you’re really good at articulating things in a way that other people don’t think of, but that make you say, ‘Oh yeah, that is what I think.’”
This little bit of narcissistic despair, it’s not quite right. That is, I do write things like this. Some of these short paragraphs feel so familiar, intimate. Like a line from a poem that I haven’t quite thought of yet, but was maybe just around the bend. The difference is that everything I write, every picture I make, they come from life. If I have any talent or skill, it’s in awareness and analysis, not imagination. I can notice a detail and pluck it out and show it to you, and on a good day, maybe I can do that in such a way that you’ll see something new. But making something that wasn’t there before, that’s something that has always eluded me. It does not elude Jenny Offill.
How could somebody imagine this? I could write lines like these, but I could never invent them. There is too much detail, too much truth in the detail. How could you know a life, the little bits of a life, the emotions and nonsense and asides. The little in-between moments where we all really live. How could you know something fictional so specifically? I can’t understand it.
I have this theory that you can break down most writers and photographers into two groups, based on how they work: builders and explorers. (Why just writers and photographers? Well, that’s all I know how to do. Maybe it works for painters and sculptors and musicians, too. I don’t know. Or maybe photography and writing have a particular something in common that other art forms don’t. I don’t know that either.)
Builders are the ones who construct new worlds. The studio photographer. The novelist. The compositor. The poet (sometimes). They start with an idea, see it in their heads, and then bring the elements together until the desired result has been realized.
Explorers often don’t set out to make something specific. They go out into the world to see what’s there, whether it’s to a far-off land or just down the hall. The landscape photographer. The street photographer. The essayist. The raconteur. What goes into the work is what was there, perhaps with some embellishment, some creative editing, but it all starts from a lived experience.
And, of course, most people will fall somewhere between. Ideas often come from life, and life often needs some scaffolding before it becomes art. It’s probably not even a spectrum, but rather a volume, a space with axes going off in all directions. (What’s the origin point, I wonder? The basis? Where is that? What does it even mean? Probably nothing; let’s not extend the metaphor further than it can go.)
I’m an explorer. Is Jenny Offill a builder? I don’t know what her process is, but Dept. of Speculation is presented as a novel, as fiction. So, let’s call her a builder. And if we call her that, maybe we’re going to have to call her a genius, too. A motherfucking savant.
Why have I spent so much time talking about my silly little taxonomy? I don’t know. Perhaps it is just that impressive art is all the more impressive to me when it’s something I can’t do.
There are, of course, explorations that have moved me, changed me, found a back room in my mind and stayed there, popping out to say hello to my conscious brain from time to time. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Bits of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s not just the builders who have a claim to my admiration.
Dept. of Speculation is the story of a marriage, from the breathless, youthful sweetness of its beginnings through a jagged crisis and beyond. But in some ways it’s hardly even a narrative—certainly it’s not a conventional one. Rather, it reads like an extended prose poem, a series of vignettes and asides and emotions. Offill doesn’t come right out and say what happened, like a novelist “should.” She relates the plot by showing you the way each thing affects her narrator, her responses to the events, the things before and after. Things get slippery; the perspective shifts from “I” to “she,” and tenses slide around from now to then. Bits of famous authors’ poetry and historical factoids pepper the pages, and it’s up to you to infer their relevance.
It’s not straightforward, but neither is it a slog. It never feels like work. It took me perhaps four hours to read through the slim volume, and I never wanted to put it down or take a break. How do you do that? Make a book that’s both obscure and accessible? I don’t know, but apparently Jenny Offill does.
Have I gushed enough? Weighed this “review” down enough with my tangents and navel-gazing? Just go read this book. It’s really something.