Sunday, June 14, 2015

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Imagine that some literary patron or publisher had given Jenny Offill the following brief:  "Write a novel about marriage. 200pp max."  Dept. of Speculation is the result. Ms. Offill constructs a vivid stream of images, a series of odd vignettes to illustrate life inside an institution, as lived by someone who's not altogether sure she's cut out for it.

The narrator, an unnamed American woman, avows, "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 umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him."

Unfortunately for her, marriage and being an art monster appear to be mutually exclusive. Although Véra Nabokov may have licked her husband's stamps for him, there are few women artists whose husbands do the dusting. Never mind producing art, it's hard to find time to even enjoy it.
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 an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.
Our narrator has an artistic temperament. Concentration and organisation are not her strong suits. In short, she is ill-suited to life as a traditional housewife and mother, and she is very aware of it. Lest she forget, her husband and daughter are there to remind her.
It's true that I am feebleminded at the grocery store. I write lists that I forget, buy things we don't need or already have. Later, my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix. But for now my daughter and I stand shivering in front of the meat case.
"I'm cold," she says. "Why can't we go? Why do we have to stand here?"
There is some kind of meat I am supposed to buy. A kind of meat to go in a meat recipe. "We can go soon," I say. "Just wait. Let me think for a minute. You're not letting me think."
So lately I've been having this recurring dream: In it, my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying, I'll tell you later. Don't pester me.
But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. "We're married, remember? Nobody's breaking up with anybody."
"I love autumn," she says. "Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?" She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. "Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I say autumn now instead of fall."
No marriage is perfect. Right?
There is a husband who requires mileage receipts, another who wants sex at three a.m. One who forbids short haircuts, another who refuses to feed the pets. I would never put up with that, all the other wives think. Never. But my agent has a theory. She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string. So now this woman at the playground is telling me about how her husband rifles through her purse for receipts. If he finds one for the wrong kind of ATM, he posts it on the refrigerator, highlighted in red. She shrugs. "He can't help it."
Being keenly aware of her own flaws, the narrator begins to question, ever so quietly, her husband's fidelity.
In many tribal cultures children are considered self-sufficient at or near the age of six. For all practical purposes, this means if they were lost overnight in the wild they might not perish. Of course, in modern industrial societies, children tend to be protected much longer. But there's evidence that the age six still resonates with men. Researchers say that many men have affairs around the time their oldest child turns six. Chances are their genes will still march on even without direct oversight.
Affairs and marital break-ups are nearly always sordid events, which few survive with dignity unscathed.
Her neighbor's husband fell in love with a girl who served coffee to him every morning. She was twenty-three and wanted to be a dancer or a poet or a physical therapist. When he left his family, his wife said, "Does it matter to you how foolish you look? That all our friends find you ridiculous?"
He stood in the doorway, his coat in his hand. "No," he said.
The wife watched her neighbor get fat over the next year. The Germans have a word for that. Kummerspeck. Literally, grief bacon.
In the end, the narrator and her husband decide that they can save their marriage by moving out of the city and into the bucolic countryside. Will they live happily ever after?
The wife has begun planning a secret life. In it, she is an art monster. She puts on yoga pants and says she is going to yoga, then pulls off onto a country lane and writes in tiny cramped handwriting on a grocery list. She thinks she should go off her meds maybe so as to write more fluidly. Possibly this is not a good idea. But only possibly. Fall comes early here. And it is unnerving to see so many stars. At night, the wife lies awake worrying about bears and chimney fires. About the army of spiders that live within. The husband wants goats. The daughter cries for Brooklyn.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like quite an odd assortment of ideas united only by the common theme of marriage/relationships.


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