13 August 2014

Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offhill

I get frustrated with current fiction, because I read all these reviews that suggest that a book is spectacular, amazing, dazzlingly innovative and tremendously well written, and then I read it and... it's just kind of ok. I guess in the fast-paced world of publishing and book reviews, anything that is better than average is momentous, whereas to me, who does not read much average stuff and reads quite a lot of older, really excellent stuff, it is less noteworthy. But I digress.

Dept. of Speculation is essentially a monologue; a woman's brief reflections over the course of a marriage. It took me awhile to stop being annoyed that she was from Brooklyn (because of course she is. Isn't everyone?), but once I did, I really warmed up to the book. The subtle indicators of the passage of time, the sense of vulnerability and precarious security and happiness, the narcissism of youth -- they're all there, and cleverly and elegantly rendered.

But then DRAMA strikes, and the story becomes strangely much less interesting. Time seems to slow down, the prose feels more cliché, and it just isn't as compelling a narrative. Yes, the struggle to preserve a marriage -- and to figure out if you want to -- is a fascinating topic, but this rendering of it seemed somehow rote to me. The fragmentary nature of the book became an impediment, making it harder for me to get drawn in and really care about what was happening. It is hard to render female rage and woundedness in a compelling way; it often comes across as whiny and self-absorbed. Offhill teeters on the edge of that, and perhaps the brevity of the narrative keeps her just this side of tolerable. After the promise of the early-to-middle third of the book, however, this feels like a let-down. Then there's a little twist at the end, which I still don't know what I think of. It might be a smaller version of the internal deliberations I'm having about the book as a whole. Poignant? Clever? Obnoxious? Gimmicky? Or largely forgettable?

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