Offill’s novel offers a kind of resistance report from within occupied territory ... But that description at once melodramatizes and banalizes Dept. of Speculation. It’s a novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors ... It is often extremely funny, and often painful; earnestly direct but glancingly ironic, even whimsical ... The form allows, as sensitive fictional or dramatic monologue usually does, for a managed ratio of randomized coherence. The waywardness and unreliability of the mind’s contents compose a narrative of that mind before our eyes ... The tone can be oblique and a little mysterious ... all the more powerful because, with its scattered insights and apparently piecemeal form, it at first appears slight. Its depth and intensity make a stealthy purchase on the reader ... Offill’s brief book eschews obvious grandeur. It does not broadcast its accomplishments for the cosmos but tracks the personal and domestic and local, a harrowed inner space. It concentrates its mass acutely, pressing down with exquisite and painful precision, like a pencil tip on the white of the nail.
A book this sad shouldn't be so much fun to read ... a riposte to the notion that domestic fiction is humdrum and unambitious. From the point of view of an unnamed American woman, it gives us the hurrahs and boos of daily life, of marriage and of parenthood, with exceptional originality, intensity and sweetness ... thoughts and recollections have an aphoristic neatness to them, enhanced by the way each paragraph is set alone on the page, white space above and below ... almost every one of these vignettes is interesting and perfectly put ... a shattered novel that stabs and sparkles at the same time. It is the kind of book that you will be quoting over and over to friends who don't quite understand, until they give in and read it too.
... charts the course of a marriage through curious, often shimmering fragments of prose ... The novel is, at times, reminiscent of Renata Adler’s Speedboat with a less bitter edge ... moves quickly, but it is also joyously demanding because you will want to keep trying to understand the why of each fragment and how it fits with the others ... Offill is a smart writer with a canny sense of pacing; just when you want to abandon the fragmented puzzle pieces of the novel, she reveals a moment of breathtaking tenderness ... especially engaging when it describes new motherhood ... For better or worse, this is not so much a book about their marriage; it is a book about the wife’s marriage. It would be interesting to read the other story to this marriage, to know more of the husband, the father — but Offill still makes it seem as if the wife’s version of the marriage is story enough and, perhaps, the only story that matters.
... quietly smashing ... The story shifts and skitters, spare but intricate as filigree, short bursts of observation and memory — comic, startling, searing — floating in white space ... Offill has tapped a vein directly into the experience of this marriage, this little family, this subsuming of self, and we mainline it right along with her ... a book so radiant, so sparkling with sunlight and sorrow, that it almost makes a person gasp.
a perfect, condensed (as in nothing spare or superfluous – every word is knife point) chronicle of lives lived with full-on, unapologetic drama and baggage. Not the lives our pre-adult selves imagined having, but the emotional grist that most of us actually end up with ... a simple premise, elegantly conveyed with Offill’s spartan prose ... The unusual and profound sense of intimacy with the characters draws the reader in. There is no bluster, no pretense, just discovery and disillusion. This is real, she seems to be saying, not some glib writerly version of a main character ... It seems just right in this compressed, texty, tweety world to deliver the story so simply, without flourish, more like a conversation than a narrative ... Offill has transcended the need to moralize. Instead, picking up Dept. Of Speculation is like having a long lunch with a funny and cherished best friend. The story is engaging and enviously clever. There are no lessons taught here, no dénouement, but you can plan on coming away with the sense that we might all be okay, that there is enough joy in our drama-filled, baggage laden lives to make the journey worthwhile.
... short and funny and absorbing, an effortless-seeming downhill ride that picks up astonishing narrative speed as it goes. What’s remarkable is that Offill achieves this effect using what you might call an experimental or avant-garde style of narration, one that we associate with difficulty and disorientation rather than speed and easy pleasure ... straightforwardly a work of realism, with characters and plot. She not only assembles her passages into a surprisingly fluid narrative, but uses her interpolated material to make the story move faster than conventional narration. She proceeds by analogy.
... a book that combines eclectic minutia with a laser-like narrative of a family on the edge of dissolution ... deals with motherhood in an honest, unsentimental way ... Offill's novel adds to the growing literature of female abandonment ... I won't give away the end of this jewel of a book, a novel as funny, honest and beguiling as any I have read. Suffice to say that, while a broken marriage threatens and fragments the wife's identity, it also brings her into a more complex understanding of the fragility and holiness of her long-term commitment.
... a magnetic novel about a marriage of giddy bliss and stratospheric anxiety, bedrock alliance and wrenching tectonic shifts ... covers this shifting terrain and its stormy weather in an exquisitely fine-tuned, journal-like account ... so precisely articulate that her perfect, simple sentences vibrate like violin strings. And she is mordantly funny, a wry taxonomist of emotions and relationships. Her dispatches from the fog of new motherhood are hilarious and subversive. Her cynical pursuit of self-improvement is painfully accurate. Her Richter-scale analysis of the aftershocks of infidelity is gripping. Nothing depicted in this portrait of a family in quiet disarray is unfamiliar in life or in literature, and that is the artistic magic of Offill’s stunning performance. She has sliced life thin enough for a microscope slide and magnified it until it fills the mind’s eye and the heart.
Offill’s work is a story about marital infidelity, but it keenly avoids the melodramatic conventions of fictionalized cheating, as Offill’s work operates on such a quiet landscape of marriage—of the simple day to day ... stories many of us instinctively know, but it’s the innermost details of this particular life, this particular marriage, the smart humor of this wife that revitalizes two otherwise exhausted storylines. Offill moves quickly and poetically over deeply introspective questions about long-term partnerships, parenthood, and aging, weaving the daily banality of an Internet meme into the implosion of a marriage ... Unlike more sensationalized portrayals of infidelity and its chaos, Offill’s characters aren’t pretty when they cry ... From deep within the interiors of a fictional marriage, Offill has crafted an account of matrimony and motherhood that breaks free of the all-too-limiting traditional stories of wives and mothers. There is complexity to the central partnership; Offill folds cynicism into genuine moments of love. It may be difficult to truly know what happens between two people, but Offill gets alarmingly close.
At the beginning of this carefully carpentered novel, pronouncements can make the narrator (i.e., the wife) seem like a cartoon of a high-strung, intellectually pretentious, narcissistic woman — at least this is how her self-presentation comes off. Her constant quoting of writers and thinkers like Simone Weil, Hesiod, Keats, Stefan Zweig and Wittgenstein feels like the hectic name-dropping tweets of an eager-to-impress literary student, and her proclivity for dwelling on the negative can’t help but summon memories of Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live ... Such behavior makes it hard to understand exactly why her nice, earnest husband married her and how he puts up with her willfully self-conscious observations and tireless self-pity ... gradually builds into a genuinely moving story of love lost and perhaps, provisionally, recovered.
... a profoundly sad look at a marriage dissected with all its blood and gore and visceral beauty laid out in perfectly placed lines of prose ... Ms. Jenny Offill owns the word poignancy with her second novel. The book may be tiny, but it’s marvelously huge in insight and honesty. Rich with humor, and deep with despair, Dept. of Speculation paints a masterful portrait of the nuts and the bolts and the warts and the silky splendor that defines commitment—the commitment to live in close quarters with other humans ... a quick, beautiful read that will draw out joy just as quickly as sadness, and may even cause one to pause and then wonder, and then to finally embrace both the misery and the magic of marriage.
... a timeless, even, some might say, predictable story, but Offill’s innovative fragmentary structure breathes a fresh and visceral vibrancy into this age-old saga ... despite these very clear separations within the text, the sense of cohesive narrative is extremely strong, and the reader is perched at the very heart of the action ... Offill is completely brilliant on the raw impotence of a mother’s love ... Beautifully devastating, Dept. of Speculation is a worthy inclusion on this year’s Folio prize shortlist.
... absorbing and highly readable. It's also intriguing, beautifully written, sly and often profound ... It's kind of amazing the way a nameless character, living a life that is missing a lot of specifics, could evoke a kind of sorrowful feeling in me. The details, even though spare, drew me in, and I began to form pictures and full scenes in my mind in response to them ... One of the dangers of writing a book in this style is that the different little stand-alone sections are inevitably pitted against one another. Some work better than others ... Offill has successfully met the challenge she seems to have given herself: write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And do it in a series of bulletins, fortune-cookie commentary, mordant observations, lyrical phrasing. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone's domestic life.
... brilliant, risk-taking ... The themes may seem familiar – the story of a marriage, the quest for identity – but Offill tells it with mesmerising skill ... staccato sections are infinitely quotable, and each paragraph break demands that the reader stop to absorb what’s being said ... Given the weight of her subjects, Offill manages to instil her fragmented observations with humour, even if it’s of the darkest variety. There are countless one-liners ... Offill has a gift for distillation and for saying something extraordinary in a handful of words. The slight size of this book belies the depth of exploration and ideas at work. Dept of Speculation is astute and affecting on the politics of relationships and the burdens of day-to-day living; of children, work and the feeling that life is passing us by. Offill has created a masterpiece that is philosophical, funny and moving. This is a book that’s not easily forgotten. Let’s hope it’s not another 15 years before her next.
... a scrapbook that transcends spatial-temporal markers, drawing equally on the wisdom of Hesiod and F. Scott Fitzgerald as the protagonist tries to make sense of her present. Dept. of Speculation unfurls in an atmosphere of 'outer space,' in which seemingly disconnected fragments are drawn together into mythic constellations of meaning ... brings to mind the domestically themed fiction of Lydia Davis ... The significance of the wife’s decontextualized anecdotes about raising her daughter can sometimes seem as puzzling as the recorded whale song on the Golden Record, but these sections surely hold charm (and even resonance) for readers who can fill in the gaps ... Ironically, while the novel’s atmosphere is as expansive and impersonal as outer space, the wife herself can seem narrow and excessively internal.
This elliptical technique will seem original only to people who don't pay close attention to literary fiction; most notably, for me, it closely borrows the contours of one of the greatest novels of the past few decades, Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison. But it's very effective ... Though Dept. of Speculation remains economical after [its] pivot – it's a short book – it's no longer the light-footed marvel it was at its beginning. Instead its emotions are at once so intense and the marital situation that drives them so prosaic that the book becomes a kind of sodden lump. The occasional fun fact that still sneaks in is no longer enough to leaven so much raw sorrow ... Offill is a poetic, piercing writer, and readers who share her experiences either of motherhood or of a troubled union may find resonance in her pained recollection of both. The rest of us will have to settle – and it's not a bad bargain – for the appealing flights outside the story, the valiant onslaught of ironies with which Offill attempts, in the end not quite successfully, to achieve distance from her claustrophobic narrative.
Popping prose and touching vignettes of marriage and motherhood fill Offill’s slim second book of fiction. Clever, subtle, and rife with strokes of beauty, this book is both readable in a single sitting and far ranging in the emotions it raises ... Offill has equal parts cleverness and erudition, but it’s her language and eye for detail that make this a must-read.
... sometimes lyrical, sometimes philosophically rich, sometimes just puzzling ... If Rainer Maria Rilke had written a novel about marriage, it might look something like this ... The fragmented story, true though it may be to our splintered, too busy lives, is sometimes hard to follow, and at times, the writing is precious, even if we’re always pulled back into gritty reality ... There are moments of literary experimentation worthy of Virginia Woolf here, but in the end, this reads more like notes for a novel than a novel itself.