Meet #2 with Dept. of Speculation 30 March 23
Our second book club meeting is next Thursday evening, 30 March 2023, at 8pm EST on Zoom/in-person for MTL people. If you didn’t make it to the first one, I hope you still join us.
Our second book club meeting is next Thursday evening, 30 March 2023, at 8pm EST. If you didn’t make it to the first one, I hope you still join us. Zoom link will be sent by email as I still haven’t gotten to making this Substack private.
We are reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014), alongside Alison Chen’s Yield to Them (2017). The group chose Offill from a selection of three. It’s also where the title of the book club “Art Monsters”— a phrase that has become commonplace among artists who are mothers—originated.
For the art work pairing, I wanted something that simultaneously, and on the surface, depicts the drain of being a mother and a partner, but isn’t really about that.
As I wrote in the family-themed issue of esse,
Chen’s single-channel video Yield to Them (2017) makes visible how our children’s impressions mark us and “do our bodies,” … Her husband’s fingers are covered in white paint, its colour resembling breast milk, and like a brush, they paint and splatter her collarbone and upper chest with their varied strokes, raps, and scratches. This movement re-imagines the gestures of her son when he used to breastfeed. As a mother of two children obsessed with breastfeeding, I can relate. Chen tells me that, like Mama Gone [another video work], the piece is meant to be a mix of humour and absurdity—considering that it is a grown man re-performing a baby’s fitful movements.
In an interview with Chen, she told me that, “humor is such a part of our daily experience. Not only kids playing, being silly—but also the whole experience can be so overwhelming that humor is the thing that keeps you afloat.”
Humor keeps Offill’s narrator afloat, too.
What did you do today, you’d say when you got home from work, and I’d try my best to craft an anecdote for you out of nothing.
I read a study once about sleep deprivation. The researchers made cat-size islands of sand in the middle of a pool of water, then placed very tired cats on top of them. At first, the cats curled up perfectly on the sand and slept, but eventually they’d sprawl out and wake up in water. I can’t remember what they were trying to prove exactly. All I took away was that the cats went crazy.
Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.
We get to know Offill’s unnamed narrator through a series of vignettes that form a narrative that isn’t always cohesive but maintains its world, like the life of a mother.
In a recent post, George Saunders writes: “Most writers tend to write stories that are long on exposition but never ascend into the rising action (that is, they don’t escalate).” I find Offill’s work, like Galchen’s Little Labours, which we read last month, to be all rising action, like the life of a mother with young children.
I left the book with an optimism about world-building because of its suspicion of relationships and motherhood. The narrator tells us: “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.”
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the Universe,” Carl Sagan announces. His affair and marriage comes up between the narrator and an “almost astronaut” whose book she is ghostwriting.
My partner, two children and I, get to make a world, our world. It’s often sleep-deprived chaos held together with chewing gum and wire and string, but it’s also hilarious, safe, and endlessly willing. Figuring out how to be a family on your terms is, to me, bewildering, awkward, and exhilarating—you must first invent the Universe. Offill’s narrator reminds us that often the apple pie ends up not the way you imagined, and the moment you’ve perfected a recipe, an ingredient needs to change (your child becomes lactose-intolerant, etc.).
One of these changes in Dept. of Speculation is an affair. The narrator’s husband cheats on her, which leads to another change: Offill switches the narrator’s first person “I” to the third-person “wife.” The affair is part of a series of crises the narrator is having, which precipitate the resentment of her socially over-determined roles. The affair turns her into “the wife,” much like having a baby turned her into “the mother.”
He cheats on her, it sucks. It’s a big deal but it also isn’t. Offill eschews any grand narratives of infidelity. There’s never any talk of divorce, just a lot of whisper -fighting. The narrator isn’t subservient—she gets angry, but she’s also realistic that they’re capable of making delicious apple pie. Then they move to the country.
What happens to their family, and their life outside of the city? Many families of a certain class thought about moving out of the city early on in the pandemic, some even did. Does moving change time? Can it change your (perception of your) role?
By the way, did you know Offill has written four children’s books? And they’re available at your local library (several of them are e-pub’s too). The girl in 17 Things I am not Allowed to Do anymore, the only one I have read so far, reminds me of the narrator of Dept. of Speculation.
See you soon! If you can’t make it, post any musings below, we’d all love that.