Jenny Offill’s heroine is referred to in these pages as simply 'the wife.' As she and her husband confront a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, and stalled ambitions, the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts.
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.