Subterranean Lives




Anjali Enjeti interviews Jenny Offill

Subterranean Lives

June 29th, 2014 reset - +

JENNY OFFILL’S latest novel, Dept. of Speculation, features a protagonist known only as “the wife” as she navigates balancing her passion for writing with raising a daughter, and later, with the implosion of her marriage. In trying to reconcile both her professional and domestic lives, the wife considers scientific theories, mythology, Arabic, Japanese and Lebanese proverbs, and Buddhist philosophy. The result is a probing examination of a character painted with delicate, patient strokes, told in a style both cubist and impressionist, realist and abstract, that stays with the reader long after completion.

Dept. of Speculation won the Ellen Levine Award in fiction in 2012 for a work in progress and was published by Knopf in 2014. The rights have been sold to the U.K., Spain, France, Turkey, Brazil, and Holland. 

Offill’s first novel, Last Things (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), was chosen as a notable or best book of the year by The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and The Guardian, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Book Award. She is the editor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of literary essays and has also written several picture books. 

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ANJALI ENJETI: Your last novel was published in 1999 and you have been working on a second one on and off all these years. What made you finally finish it?

JENNY OFFIL: I got tired of being underestimated.

What inspired you to write this story in this particular style?

I wanted to create a philosophical novel that was set in the domestic sphere. Many of the books I admire feature a narrator who walks around at loose ends, thinking about things large and small. These swings from the trivial to the transcendent and back again have always fascinated me. And yet because these characters are almost always men, the small things they obsess about are of a different order than what I wanted to write about. 

Are you interested in the differences between the interior lives of men and women, at least as experienced through novels?

Well, if you look at some classic male protagonists: they might be trying to quit smoking, as in Confessions of Zeno (Italo Svevo); or get out of their slippers, as in Oblomov (Ivan Goncharov); or flirt in another language, as in Leaving the Atocha Station (Ben Lerner); or decide what book to take on a trip, as in Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (Geoff Dyer); but their forays into the everyday world still allow them to remain in their own heads, to be self-contained always. Their solipsism is never pierced, and this allows for a kind of brilliant comic momentum. (“Solipsistic” is used mostly as a pejorative term, but at its basis is the philosophical idea that “My mind is the only thing that I know exists.” I think most bookish people feel this way sometimes.) 

I wondered what it would be like to create this sort of character, but also have her need to engage deeply with the people around her, not just with the theater in her head. New parents, but especially new mothers like the wife, have a set of alarms going off in their heads during the early, high stakes period of trying to keep a baby alive, while dealing with the pleasant lull of housebound boredom. The transcendence is undercut by the tedium. I wanted to get that feeling on the page. The solution I came up with was to describe her thoughts and actions in fragments, so that one would always be dislocating the other.

The narrative perspective varies throughout the novel — zooming into the wife’s thoughts, then taking a step back, to quote scientists, philosophers, and writers, as the wife attempts to make sense of her life. How did you decide when to bore into her thoughts and when to take a longer view?

The different degrees of authorial distance in the novel are meant to mirror how close or far the wife feels from the husband at any given time. It’s also meant to create the sensation of floating into and out of the story, to make you aware as a reader that the story is a constructed thing, an assemblage of pieces. I think we all have these disorienting moments where we suddenly spin away from where we are and out into space. Maybe it’s an odd sensation of groundlessness while waiting for the bus, or a stray thought that you need tin foil while listening to an elegy. I was trying to capture that sense I sometimes have that a moment is being recalibrated. 

Though you’ve written a compelling story about the trajectory of a marriage, there is an equally compelling story about the wife’s struggle to find the balance between her art and her family. Can you speak about this tension — did you face this in your own life? Can a woman be both an artist and, as the wife calls it, “an art monster”? Are the two mutually exclusive? 

I think every person, man or woman, who tries to make art faces this to some extent. To make something good requires an obsessiveness that is profoundly anti-social. There is, of course, no such thing as balance to an art monster. Hence the name.

I do think, though, that women are judged more harshly for art monster moments than men. There’s this myth that family life should be enough, that to want that, plus more, is somehow selfish. But no one ever says a man is selfish for wanting meaningful work and a family. No one would even think to say that, because it doesn’t make sense. All of this talk of selfishness or whininess or pretension is a form of verbal policing (done by both men andwomen, incidentally), and it’s meant to keep people in line, to make them live as conventionally as possible.

I particularly hate that phrase about women “wanting to have it all.” Because that’s not about women, it’s about humans. The humans want to have it all! Blame the fucking humans who situated themselves halfway between the beasts and the gods and then discovered it was an uneasy place to be.

Kate Zambreno wrote about this kind of gender bias in a piece called “Unpublished Letter to The New York Times,” which analyzed Michiko Kakutani’s critique of your novel. What did you think about the points Zambreno made?

I thought that was a brilliant piece, very lucid and well-argued. I don’t know Kate Zambreno, but it made me want to hang out with her just so I could listen to her talk more about these things. I’ve gotten a few reviews like Kakutani’s. I call them the “Who Would Even Marry Her Anyway?” reviews.

You’ve used quite a bit of humor in the novel, particularly involving some of the most frustrating aspects of parenting, such as newborn colic and the judgment of other parents. Do you make a conscious decision as a writer to balance humor and suspense?

When I was writing this novel, I was really influenced by the work of some comedians. I really like the storytelling and emotional switchbacks of Louis C.K., and Marc Maron’s standup routines. And I was blown away by the genius of Maria Bamford when I discovered her a few years ago. She has this bit about people talking to sick people using the same “shake it off” advice that depressed people get.

Apparently Steve has cancer. It’s like, fuck off! We all have cancer.

I loved that and all of her other riffs about anxiety and depression — it inspired me to write the way I wanted to. I knew this novel would have to be funny if it was going to contain so much darkness in such a small space. 

Your writing reminds me of prose poetry, in particular of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets — your paragraphs often feel more like verses. Do you read or write poetry? What works or which writers inspired this prose-poetry style?

I read Bluets when I was about halfway through the novel and immediately freaked out that maybe she had already done what I was trying to do. It’s a great book, jagged and dark and expansive in its way. I really admire it. I have always been influenced by poets, perhaps more than fiction writers, really. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs was an essential early book for me, and I’m drawn to the work of New York School poets such as Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Alice Notley, and Barbara Guest. In fact, I’m reading Collected Poems by Ron Padgett now and it is mind-blowingly good.

In the prose-poetry department, I always point people to Mary Ruefle’s book, The Most of It, and to By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, and to Darkness Moves by Henri Michaux. All three opened doors of possibility for me. 

The style of this novel is striking — stream of consciousness, in a series of vignettes. There are breaks and fragments. You make leaps in time. And yet, your novel is a fluid, easy read, which can be finished in one sitting. Is this something you strived for when you wrote the novel? Did the white spaces once inhabit more expansive prose? What role did revision play in how the novel was shaped?

The white spaces are meant to give the reader a pause from the narrator’s galloping thoughts,and sometimes they are there to make a joke more deadpan. I suppose I do think of my prose as expansive, but I seem to be in the minority on that one. I do try to create vistas of a sort, places where you can see a long ways off. 

But I’m also obsessed with the idea of compression, of creating a dense knot of associations and feeling, so that doesn’t match up at all, does it?

As for earlier drafts, I can’t say there are all that many extra sections to this particular novel; most of the revision happened at the sentence level. But I do have pages and pages of trivia about space travel and evolutionary biology and failed Arctic expeditions that I didn’t use.

There is a significant crisis in the marriage, an infidelity. Though infidelity is somewhat of a trope in fiction about marriage, in your novel the revelation and subsequent heartache of the affair feel original and fresh. The reason, I believe, is because you don’t portray the wife as a victim. Did you make a conscious effort to avoid stereotypes about affairs in literature?

I debated a lot about putting that in. Because it is indeed a shopworn theme. But, as with any other thing you write about, the task is to make the language new. I was reading a poet from the Tang dynasty about the time I got to that point in the novel. One of his lines from, I don’t know, page 812, was “No new feelings.” When I read that I laughed out loud. People have been writing about the same things since the invention of the written word. The only originality comes from the language itself. 

But I do suspect infidelity has such an enduring appeal in novels because it’s shorthand for the idea that the life you show the world is not the real life you live. 

These lives, the subterranean ones, are what interest me as a writer. It’s not just people having affairs. The woman who writes the cheery Christmas letter has a subterranean life. So does the man who sells you cigarettes at the bodega. Very old people have such lives; very young children, too. I think all of us have these unseen moments in which we feel things more deeply than we know how to say. Writers may just be people who are stubborn enough to keep trying to illuminate them.

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Anjali Enjeti is a novelist from Atlanta. She is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Queens University in Charlotte.

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