Antelopes have 10x vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.
As the new decade approached, many websites published lists of the “Best Books of the Decade.” The novel Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill appeared on a LOT of those lists. Curious, I read it to see what all the fuss was about. It is freaking great!
What is it about?
A woman’s marriage may be in trouble, and she reflects on her life, her career, her family, the world around her, and herself.
What is this book like?
It’s funny, thought-provoking, sad, weird, and beautiful. It just feels very human. Composed of a series of fragmented thoughts, musings, trivia, impressions, and observations, it is fair to say that this book has an unconventional format. The book has a plot, but it is secondary in importance to the narrator’s thought processes. The narrator provides brilliant insight into modern life and powerful, critical self-reflection that enables the reader to understand the character at a deep level. Reading Dept. of Speculation is like visiting with a smart female friend that doesn’t like herself very much. The book reads quickly, easily able to be read in a day.
What’s awesome about this book?
Although I read quite a bit of genre fiction, I like reading Literary Fiction, too. What’s Literary Fiction? It has a pretty vague definition, but it’s usually applied to books that have some “artistic merit.” Works of Literary Fiction will (but not always) experiment with language, subvert established tropes, or even create new formats of storytelling. The purpose of Literary Fiction is usually “deeper” than just telling a fun story. A good Literary Fiction book may provide new ways of expressing the human condition, encourage readers to think differently about themselves or the world, or establish an almost-psychic-link through empathy between the author, the work, and the reader. Dept. of Speculation is a good Literary Fiction book. But I don’t want to imply that the book is a difficult slog. The book is fun! Every one of the fragments that make up the narrative is basically a great quote. If you’re the kind of reader that underlines, your whole book is going to be marked up.
What sucks about this book?
Nothing sucks about this book. BUT it might not be for everyone. Some people like escapist, action-y plots. This book doesn’t have one of those. The plot is pretty basic, and it is not the point of this novel. Some folks only read certain genres like fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries, etc. This book does not have those genre elements. Other readers might be put off by the unusual format of the novel, preferring their books to have more conventional paragraphs, character development, and dialogue. And when a book centers on the thought-processes of one person, if readers don’t connect with that person, they could be left cold.
I loved the formal experimentation, and its use in providing a different, powerful, interesting take on what is fundamentally a common marriage-in-trouble story.
TLDR: Read this book if you:
- enjoy a sharp wit, particularly deployed in a self-deprecating way
- like reading thoughts and observations about marriage and parenthood
- are open to unique writing formats
- have an afternoon to kill
TLDR: Avoid this book if you:
- only read genre fiction (or nonfiction)
- don’t like experimental writing styles
- like your plots to be full of action
- want your stories to be full of developed secondary characters
Pay attention to the pronoun uses and tenses. There’s interesting stuff going on there that you might miss the first time reading it.
My Rating: 5 Stars