My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This acclaimed 2014 novel of marriage, motherhood, and adultery is a perfect expression of the fictional and even critical style of our time.
Five years ago, in homage to James Wood’s famous censure of the late 20th century’s “hysterical realism,” I called this style “penitential realism” and noted some of its most salient characteristics: “a resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of co-incidence”; “[a] focus on moral ambiguity, on characters inextricably complicit in their societies’ sufferings, along with an emphasis on negative mental states and affects…shame, guilt, embarrassment, repression, anhedonia”; and “a benumbed tone, disenchanted, inert, and baffled, not least by themselves.” Dept. of Speculation is much funnier than this list would suggest, but otherwise it fits the bill. Likewise, Anthony’s recent note on autofiction also applies:
It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what [Rachel] Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.
When I say that Dept. of Speculation is autofiction, I don’t mean to imply that it is autobiographical; I have no idea whether it is or not. But its fragmentary and intimate first-person address, one drawing for support on a range of cultural discourses, echoes a characteristic 21st-century mode of writing that, with inspiration from Bernhard and Barthes, Sebald and Berger, traverses several different genres from fiction to criticism and even to poetry and the graphic memoir. Works by writers as diverse as Teju Cole, Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Kristen Radtke come to mind.
Elevating the fragment over the scene, the notation over narration, such writing testifies to a loss of faith in fictional or nonfictional storytelling. This is an older idea than it looks, going back at least to Romantic aesthetics and the modern (not postmodern) collapse of faith in traditional theology and systematic philosophy, as The Stanford Encyclopedia instructs:
The fragment is among the most characteristic figures of the Romantic movement. Although it has predecessors in writers like Chamfort (and earlier in the aphoristic styles of moralists like Pascal and La Rochefoucauld), the fragment as employed by Schlegel and the Romantics is distinctive in both its form (as a collection of pieces by several different authors) and its purpose. For Schlegel, a fragment as a particular has a certain unity (“[a] fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog,” Athenaeumsfragment 206), but remains nonetheless fragmentary in the perspective it opens up and in its opposition to other fragments. Its “unity” thus reflects Schlegel’s view of the whole of things not as a totality but rather as a “chaotic universality” of infinite opposing stances.
I emphasize both the current popularity and the distinguished pedigree of this literary mode because I want to play fair. The truth is I am not sure how much I like it. At one time, I liked it enormously. When I was younger, I thought it was the height of profundity to concede the humility, contingency, and contradictoriness of one’s own discourse. I was stunned in a seminar, late in college, to read Barthes’s S/Z and Ondaatje’s English Patient, and I wanted to write criticism like Barthes and fiction like Ondaatje, or maybe even vice versa.
Now, and I can’t say why for sure, or when the change came, I am far more impressed by those who actually make the doomed effort of coherence, of continuous argument, of epic narration. Fragmentary penitential autofiction strikes me as fundamentally evasive, raising questions only to flee from them. I am also troubled by this style’s tendency toward political self-congratulation. Here, for instance, is Jenny Offill in an interview:
As for form, I will say that compression and distillation of grand themes feels particularly anti-patriarchal to me. I get tired of the idea that big doorstopper books equal ambitious books. But to be fair, that’s just my particular aesthetic. Part of becoming a real artist is deciding if and how you want to push back against prevailing norms. You’re free, remember?
I appreciate the “to be fair,” but still, the conflation of gender and genre doesn’t match the historical record. Offill’s chosen fragmentary form was the invention, by and large, of male Romanic philosophers and poets, while women have been writing “big doorstopper books” for at least a millennium. World literature’s first great novel is a big doorstopper written by a woman: The Tale of Genji. The longest novel ever written was written by a woman: Artamène. The most socially and politically important Anglophone novel of the 19th century is a big doorstopper written by a woman: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Perhaps the single greatest Anglophone novel of the 19th century, or even ever, is a big doorstopper written by a woman: Middlemarch. Are all of these women patriarchs? I don’t see what “patriarchy” (a word that, like certain other explanatory terms favored by the intellectual left, explains everything and so explains nothing) has to do with it.
Politics having failed us yet again, let’s talk about aesthetics. Dept. of Speculation is the brief first-person narrative of a writer, editor, and creative writing professor who tells the discontinuous tale of her marriage from its beginning to its crisis, when the husband commits adultery and then the couple attempts to reconcile.
The book take a montage or collage form, with every paragraph set apart from every other, each offering its own image or observation, quotation or fact. There are few full-fledged scenes or sustained reflections. Moreover, Offill’s prose is not notably stylized but rather written in relatively colloquial English. This choice works overall, since the fragmentary style when combined with a higher verbal register can sound portentous or self-important. At the same time, an occasional sense of slackness prevails, as here:
The philosopher’s sister-in-law ordered a piece of antique mourning jewelry to wear. A gold locket with a place inside to put a picture of the one who died. On the outside their is a small etched rose. But Prepare to follow is engraved on the inside of it. The nineteenth century. Jesus. Those people did not mess around.
To adapt Capote’s infamous comment on Kerouac: that’s not writing, that’s Tweeting. All the same, Offill needs to risk this casualness to create the novel’s chief appeal, which is the candor of the narrator’s voice:
There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.
She confesses to confusion, bad feelings, mixed emotions, divided loyalties. She is honest about the travails of motherhood:
Is she a good baby? People would ask me.
Well, no, I’d say.
She is honest about her seemingly indefatigable love for her errant husband:
The wife has never not wanted to be married to him. This sounds false but it is true.
(Note the play with perspective: sometimes the narrator speaks in the first person and addresses her husband in the second, while at other times, as their marriage grows troubled, she distances herself, even grammatically, from both.)
Sometimes it feels as if the narrator is willfully transgressing the expectations of various imagined constituencies at different times: now daring the hidebound male reader to upbraid her for insufficient feminine deference, now flaunting to the feminist ideologue her incorrigible commitment to husband and child. This psychological and by extension moral complexity is the best use of the autofictional style, as it brings the personal voice in all its brittleness and inner contradiction into fiction, so as to better perform the greatest fiction’s traditional office of refusing didacticism and defying absolutism.
Offill also puts her story in a grander perspective by calling on canonical voices (the narrator quotes Keats, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Rilke, and Berryman) and the cosmic vistas of science. The narrator is editing a book about space for an eccentric rich man, which allows Offill to add at intervals facts about the travails of space travel to her story, a motif of literally universal loneliness that compounds the mundane loneliness of the struggling couple. On the other hand, the prevalence of male authorities cited by the narrator, from philosophers to cosmonauts, adds to the novel’s theme of men’s greater cultural latitude for the selfishness apparently necessary to grand achievement:
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
A countervailing Buddhist motif in the novel suggests that better than monstrousness is the abandonment of self:
The Buddhists say that wisdom may be attained by reaching the three marks. The first is an understanding of the absence of self. The second is an understanding of the impermanence of all things. The third is an understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary experience.
This recalls Nietzsche’s prophecy that Buddhism, precisely because of its princely abdication of moral selfhood, would eventually predominate in the post-Christian west: “Buddhism is a religion for the closing, over-wearied stages of civilization” (The Antichrist, trans. Mencken). Such aspirations to quasi-aristocratic upper-middle-class detachment are sociologically appropriate to this anti-novel about a pair of Brooklyn intellectuals who seem hardly ever to worry about money.
Dept. of Speculation is a superb instance of the kind of novel that it is. Judged from within its own frame of reference, it can hardly be faulted. I suspect I will even teach it in a class on contemporary literature for its exemplary qualities. But I do question the dominance of this aesthetic today, especially when accompanied by arguments that fiction more fully imagined, more conceptually complete, more stylistically weighty is aesthetically naive or politically regressive. At one point, Offill’s narrator offers this piece of cultural flotsam:
Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart…it produces indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities. [Offills’s italics and ellipses.]
Observe the ambiguity: we are, on the one hand, obviously invited to laugh at this old-time sexism; on the other hand, does Offill’s artistic method not coincide perfectly with the advice book’s mistrust of fiction? Isn’t the entire point of the fragmentary rather than architectonic style to recall us to “ordinary realities”?
What if we are personal because we are too timid to venture the universal? What if we are fragmentary because we are not energetic enough to create wholes? What if we collect facts because we cannot attain visions? What if we insist that life does not cohere only because we are no longer even willing to try to make sense? Do we think the world will judge us kindly, or forget to judge us at all, if we make ourselves inconspicuous? I suspect it’s time to speculate more boldly. “You’re free, remember?”