Jenny Offill: life after Dept. of Speculation – the underdog persona’s not going to fly any more
A Brooklyn writer is having trouble producing a second book; she also struggles with bedbugs, a small daughter and a husband who gets involved with a younger woman. The plot of Jenny Offill’s second novel,Dept. of Speculation , doesn’t sound promising: “If someone had described this novel to me, I would never have read it,” she says when we meet on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. A novel of ideas half disguised as a domestic drama, it’s told in fragments, jokes, quotations: WB Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ludwig Wittgenstein appear alongside proverbs, scientific “fun facts” and snippets of self-help. So familiar is the story that it can be told with rare economy, leaving out almost every expected element in favour of something quicker, sadder, funnier. As her agent told the press when they sold the novel to Knopf in 2013, “If your average book is a body, this is an x-ray.” When she saw it had made the New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of 2014, Offill wondered if she’d start seeming too popular for readers like herself (she’s often drawn to “more experimental, small-press books”).
Over lunch, Offill still looks a little taken aback. Her debut,Last Things , came out to good reviews in 1999, but she clearly didn’t expect this smaller, stranger book to be such a hit. “I realised about a year ago, ‘Oh, I’m not sure that underdog persona’s going to fly any more.” As well as teaching writing as a “roving adjunct”, she’s had a lot of jobs over the years, from waiting tables to working at BookCourt, my local bookshop in Brooklyn, to facilitating the vanity projects of “crazy rich people”. For years she wondered if she should do a postgraduate course in linguistics, or become a primatologist, but “like many writers I’m kind of a one-trick pony – this is the thing I can do”.
Born in 1968, she grew up the only child of two private-school English teachers, moving around the US from Massachusetts to California to Indiana to North Carolina, going to school with children from much wealthier backgrounds. “For so much of my life money was always the thing, I might have had time but I didn’t have money.” When she moved to New York as an adult, the wealth and privilege was “of another order. I couldn’t figure out how all these people were surviving on the salary of, say, a fact-checker. And then eventually one of them would have a party and you’d go to their house and think, ‘Oh … everybody has secret money.’” One paragraph inDept. of Speculation(each is set out like a Bible verse or the stanza of a poem) reads:
“A woman at the playground explains her dilemma. They have finally found a house, a brownstone with four floors and a garden, perfectly maintained, on the loveliest of blocks in the least anxiety producing of school districts, but now she finds that she spends much of her day on one floor looking for something that has actually been left on another floor.”
If New York’s class dynamics are clearly implied, the novel nonetheless operates on a scale where broader social or political life is mostly invisible. There’s the bizarre isolation of domesticity and there are the vistas of deep space, and not much in between; when the narrator discovers that her husband is listening to a lecture series called “The Long Now”, she’s surprised to learn that it’s about “topics such as climate change and Peak Oil. Somehow I had assumed it meant the feeling of daily life”. Confusions of scale have always intrigued Offill.Last Things , now being reissued, is told from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl being home-schooled by her increasingly unstable mother (“another book”, she says, “that if described to me I would not wish to read”). Science, mythology and playground rumours mix together without hierarchy: the child and the unbalanced adult understand each other, Offill says, because “when you put things on the same plane, you start to see that they’re not necessarily as far apart as they might seem”. She comes across this idea everywhere, that “these distinctions we make between what is important and what is trivial, what is big and what is small, are really arbitrary”. She cites the Swiss writer Robert Walser’s admiration for the way Paul Cézanne had of “placing in the same ‘temple’ things both large and small”. (Walser himself is an interesting reference point for Offill, with his compressed wit and his tiny script that used to be mistaken for a code – writing that looks more obscurantist than it really is.)
She is drawn to visual artists who “take an everyday thing and somehow make it, by accumulation, into something much bigger”. She mentions Tehching Hsieh’s durational art, which includes a piece for which he punched a timeclock every hour for a year. The idea of passing “through boredom into fascination” (as Diane Arbus put it) is a familiar one; some form of it can be found in everything from Gertrude Stein to David Foster Wallace’s unfinishedThe Pale King , though it still feels a little unusual to apply it to domestic life. What it evokes above all is a kind of alienated clarity that can come with depression. Offill mentions “those studies that show that depressed people actually see the world much more accurately”. She was pleased that UK reviewers seemed to understandDept. of Speculationin a different way – they “got the humour of it” more, “all these moments which are really meant to be kind of a joke about what it’s like to be depressed”. Readers responded to that, too; she heard from quite a few unhappy young men who work in bookshops. Offill herself has had depression since she was 18 and “when I’m medicated, which I’m
doing now … I have to work a little harder to get up to high speed”. At times writing seems to get harder as living gets easier. Coming out of a difficult time into a more comfortable one can be “like watching the light dim”.
In the book, the narrator’s troubles emerge only obliquely. Late on there’s a glancing reference to medicine, and another to her childhood: she and her sister discuss her husband, “just a nice boy from Ohio”, and how unprepared he is for this marital breach, the first bad thing that’s really happened to him. “What would it be like,” the sisters wonder, “to make it so late into life before trouble hit?” They lost their mother young, and their father was elsewhere: not expecting the worst isn’t a problem they have. The narrator suspects her husband’s lover might be more like her. Offill tells me she thinks those with “a little of that raised-by-wolvesness” can spot each other. She’s met people – often, again, the rich – to whom the big loss or disillusionment “hasn’t happened yet. And I always feel a little nervous for them.”
There is a certain chutzpah in letting 15 years go by and then publishing a novel fewer than 200 pages long that looks more like a poem. As well as having her daughter Theodora at 35, Offill was wrestling with an earlier version of the book, formed from the same elements – marriage, creative work, “motherhood hijacking you out of that art-making mind” – but more linear, more conventionally structured. At Columbia she taught a class about unhinged narrators, and after encouraging countless students to experiment, unhinge, deconstruct, she started to feel like “a total hypocrite”: “Why am I not writing like that?” Teaching students not to overwrite also helped her with her own art of compression: “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how you can say the most with the least.”
She’d got as far as sending the earlier version to publishers, and when a couple turned it down, she realised that alongside her anxiety over more years of booklessness, she felt liberated – “thrilled, relieved” – because this wasn’t the novel she’d hoped to write. “My dirty little secret is that when I gave up on it I wrote poetry for a year,” she says. “I had to get my sea legs back.” Writing poetry freed her from worrying about narrative for a while: “For me, people’s emotional life is plot.” She remembers coming out of her study and saying to her husband: “OK, I’m writing a completely different book about this stuff, and probably nobody’s going to read it except other writers, but it might be a lot better – and I’ll just make money writing kids’ books.” (Indeed, she’s written several, including17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do AnymoreandWhile You Were Napping .)
The form ofDept. of Speculationoften mimics the experience of early motherhood. Caring for her baby, the narrator writes, involved a repetitive sequence of “urgent and tedious” tasks that “cut the day up into little scraps”. The book is not an autobiography, and Offill says she’s learned her lesson about creating a protagonist whose biographical details are so close to her own. Still, the central problem of combining motherhood and creative work is one drawn from life. The narrator, like Offill, had always planned to be “an art monster”, someone ruthless, who would never let family ties get in the way of her writing. Offill used to pore in vain over Paris Review interviews; she didn’t find enough female art monsters to console her, though in a way women are the only real ones – when it’s a man “they just call it being an artist”. Her most natural writing method is the binge – “I do my best writing if I’m just left alone for weeks at a time and don’t have to in any way act like a normal human being” – which isn’t very compatible with parenthood. Now she’s able to take a break from teaching, and her daughter is 10, it’s going faster: she plans to turn in the next book in October.
Maternal “ambivalence” sometimes implies feeling bad at home about not being at work, and vice versa, not fully there in either place, but whatDept. of Speculationcaptures is the violent commitment to both at once. “They’re ferocious experiences, parental love and trying to make really serious art, the intensity required for both is very high”; in the early years especially, they can be “at war a little bit”. In a sense Offill sees mothering and writing as similar: requiring total attention, alertness. When writing’s going well “your antennae are up”. When her daughter was little: “There was just a siren going off in my head: ‘She could die she could die! Keep your eyes on her! Don’t let your mind wander!’”
InDept. of Speculationthe narrator lists “three things no one has ever said about me”, beginning with “You make it look so easy.” Another feature of contemporary motherhood is the double bind: you must be perfect and you must be perfectly self-deprecating. Offill laughs that a group of women writers she knows have discussed making a pact about blurbs, to emulate the men who often seem quicker to call each other a genius: “What if we just said, ‘She is arguably the greatest writer of our generation. Or any generation.’ About everyone.” Offill is aware of the improbability that “a book that is written the way you want to write it” will make money or attract a big, mainstream, bookclub audience: it’s “literary lightning”. Soon after our lunch, I stop by my local bookshop, the one Offill once worked in. They have a monthly bookclub, and guess who’s the February pick.
•Dept. of Speculationis out in paperback this week.