JUNE 29, 2014
IN THE 1980s PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Carl Sagan invited his viewers to explore the cosmos with him in a ship of the imagination. You might remember the washed-out tint of desaturated film stock as waves crash against rocky bluffs in the background, while Sagan releases a feathered dandelion seed into the wind, informing us that our journey into the cosmos will carry us “to worlds of dreams, and worlds of facts.”
The revamped Cosmos series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the witty and sarcastic Hayden Planetarium director responsible for stripping Pluto of its title of farthest planet from the sun. The 21st-century aesthetic of deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos is characterized by flashy CGI and a sweeping, string-heavy soundtrack familiar to summer blockbuster audiences. It updates the universe for the millennial generation.
Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation is made up of a dream-to-fact ratio similar to Sagan’s Cosmos. The book is composed of 177 pages of staccato sections that range in length from a few words to a few sentences. It tells the story of a marriage as narrated by “the wife,” a clever writer with a droll sense of humor and an almost reverent interest in the details of daily life. The reader is alternately enveloped in the wife’s mind and then turned out to contemplate (and perhaps test) what wisdom she’s accumulated of philosophy, science, literature, and Eastern religious teachings.
Early in the novel, Offill tells us, “Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that was outer space.” The book is an intertextual exploration of the narrator’s journey from newly published novelist to wife to mother, weaving the “little people” of her memory with “bits of poetry that stick to her like burrs.” It is 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.
Sagan himself appears in several sections of the novel that describe the Golden Record project. He was part of a 1977 team that selected sounds to represent life on Earth, which were then recorded onto a gold-plated copper disk sent into space on board Voyager 1. The idea was that Voyager, as it meanders through the universe, might be intercepted by beings intelligent enough to decode the information on the record. Sagan described it as a message in a bottle launched into a cosmic ocean. Likewise, toward the end of the book there are hints that we are reading a work of metafiction — that the book in our hands may be the wife’s own Golden Record made from notes “written in cramped handwriting on a grocery list” and “scrawled on the back of a credit card receipt.” Instead of a record of life on Earth sent into the cosmos, we get a record of a single life sent into the world in the form of a novel.
That is the Sagan’s Cosmos reading of the book. The younger generation of deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos — of which I am a part — will most likely be familiar with the fragmented form of Dept. of Speculation from reading Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. But the narrative style of the novel stems from rich history of experimental fiction, ranging from David Markson’s curated collection of historical anecdotes in This Is Not a Novel to the piecemeal, Ritalin-fueled thoughts of the narrator in Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever.
The wife finds employment as a fact-checker for a science magazine and a ghostwriter for an “almost astronaut’s” autobiography. Early in the novel, she tells us that her “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.” But Dept. of Speculation finds its subject in precisely those “mundane things” shunned by art monsters. After the wife submits her first novel (on the eighth page of the book), she gets drunk and starts talking about boyfriends, and we don’t see her even attempt to do her own work again until a dozen pages before the novel’s end.
Dept. of Speculation brings to mind the domestically themed fiction of Lydia Davis, whose innovative prose style lets the reader glimpse the familiar scenes of family life through unexpected lenses. Her story “What You Learn About the Baby” is divided into short sections with titles like “Don’t Expect to Finish Anything” and “Admiration.” It reads as part advice manual, part cautionary tale, and part song of praise in the form of simple observations: “You learn to sit still. You learn to stare as he stares, to stare up at the rafters as long as he stares up at the rafters, sitting still in a large space.” Offill’s novel covers much of the same territory as “What You Learn About the Baby,” but its tone is often more conversational than meditative. A section on page 34 reads, “Her favorite book is about firemen. When she sees the picture, she will mime ringing the bell and sliding down the pole. Clang, clang, clang goes the fire engine bell. The men are on their way!” 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.
The book jacket of Dept. of Speculation tells us that the wife “muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art,” but the novel reads less like the conflict between motherhood and artistic output than the struggle between safety and ambition. The wife’s mother died when she was young, after her father had abandoned the family; consequently she has a “raised-by-wolvesness” that her wholesome Midwestern husband can’t understand. The wife constantly seeks external consolation to soothe her inner turmoil, first in marriage and then in motherhood: “There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.” Offill finds much vitality in the complex relationship between the damaged individual self and the self as a part of a nurturing whole. The wife doesn’t seem fully aware of this dynamic, which may be the case, or may be a result of the distance between protagonist and reader that is enforced by the novel’s formal approach.
What we do know is that when the wife first meets her future husband, she gives him her “favorite thing from Chinatown, pressed drunkenly into your hand. We were in my kitchen that first night. BEAUTIFUL GAUZE MASK, the package said.” The husband continues from that point to exist in her life, you could say, in the idyllic shroud of this mask. However, once the couple leaves terra firma — they make plans to meet each other in a foreign destination — she finds he has “had a ten-dollar haircut. I was fatter than when I’d left. It seemed possible that we’d traveled across the world in error. We tried to reserve judgment.” It’s difficult to tell in the beginning of the book if the compromises in their relationship are more than what is called for — if the wife is idealizing her husband as the knight in shining armor who can carry her away from herself. Loneliness and a desire for solace are recurring themes in the novel: “Lying in bed, you’d cradle my skull as if there was a soft spot there that needed to be protected. Stay close to me,you’d say. Why are you way over there?” But paradoxically, the wife’s reliance on her husband as the sole provider of her sense of security puts her in an increasingly precarious position as the novel unfolds.
The wife thought that Sagan had met his wife while working on the Golden Record. And he did, in a way — Sagan married one of his collaborators, Ann Druyan, after an “acrimonious” divorce from his first wife. (Sagan immortalizes Druyan’s intense, new love for him by recording her brainwaves as she is concentrating on him and including it on the Golden Record.)
Similarly, the wife’s husband begins an affair with a female coworker. When he confesses to her, the prose fragments, zooming out into space and becoming increasingly abstract, impersonal, and historical: “Thales supposed the earth to be flat and to float upon the water. Anaxagoras thought the moon was an inhabited earth.” The wife’s shock is relayed and refracted through what she knows about ancient, misguided beliefs about the cosmos. Her world is not what she thought it was — the once-solid sphere she inhabited with her husband turns out to be as fragile as a hypothesis, and maybe never existed any more than Thales’ flat earth.
Offill’s movement toward abstraction is furthered by the transition from first- and second-person narration to the more distant third-person; this is where the narrator becomes “the wife,” signaling that her identity struggle has shifted almost entirely to her need to understand herself in terms of her perilously shifting relationships to her husband and daughter. The agency that the wife forfeited to fulfill her dream of starting a family was already a source of contention in her life, and as her marriage falls apart the reader witnesses how few resources the wife has beyond her domestic role to sustain her. The youthful notion of the “art monster” seems worlds away as she declares, “It is so easy now for the wife to be patient and kind to the daughter. She will never love anyone or anything more. Never. It is official.”
The whimsical and fragmented potpourri that characterizes the first section of the novel develops into a more conventionally narrative approach as the plot unfolds. The chapter, for instance, in which the wife confronts her husband’s mistress, is a long and relatively straightforward scene. The wife and her husband go to his office to confront his mistress, but the mistress is reluctant to meet her. The scene is presented as if the wife, a writing teacher, is correcting a story written by one of her students: “‘You fucked a child! She’s a fucking child! Tell her to come out here!’ This is very emotionally charged,she’d write next to the moment when the husband calls the girl and softly tries to convince her.” This tactic creates a sense of distance that registers as the embarrassment of naked emotion. Instead of an unprocessed glimpse into the wife’s pain, a heartrending experience comes off as the stiff and over-handled writing of an undergrad. The scene is in keeping with the formal experiment of the novel, but is ultimately unrewarding for the reader. In the chapters that follow, we are left to absorb the wife’s gut-wrenching reconstruction of her husband’s affair and its aftermath without feeling an unmediated and trusting kinship with her. It’s like listening to an acquaintance unload 80 pages worth of trauma to you on the phone.
Ironically, while the novel’s atmosphere is as expansive and impersonal as outer space, the wife herself can seem narrow and excessively internal. Appropriately, the novel closes on a note of ambiguity: “No one young knows the name of anything.” Perhaps Dept. of Speculation should be sent to our future selves to decode — while it gives us the Golden Record of the wife, we might like to also have a fuller and larger sense of her story.