Jenny Offill – Dept. of Speculation (2014)

dept of speculationDept. of Speculation is an intense delight.  It is also such a slight book (only 177 pages and lots of white space), that I didn’t think I would be writing about it on this blog.  However, as someone who claims ‘narrative’ as my preferred methodology, I am really interested in story-telling and I couldn’t ignore the way that this story is told.

The reasons I would give for choosing a narrative approach is that it treats people as people (not as statistics or objects of research) and it recognises that people have a sense of themselves that needs to be respected through the research process.   Narrative is also social.  Telling stories requires both a teller and an audience and “different social circumstances require us to perform different selves” (Lock and Strong, 2010: 204).  This is where narrative and social justice converge – the consideration of circumstances. I want to support someone to tell their own story. But I also want to investigate the way they tell their stories and what that can tell me about the wider context and the workings of power in which their identity is being formed.  When it comes to analysis, therefore, form, context and content of a story all matter.

What matters most with Dept. of Speculation is its form.  The content (the plot, the characters, etc.) is presented as familiar – the intricacies of a marriage.  The form, however, is different.  It is a series of small vignettes, of snatched memories and observations, of pertinent sayings.  With a few lines at a time the reader is given fragments of a life, a jigsaw to piece together.  It is an intellectual and entertaining twitter feed from which the reader carves the story.

When I read a novel that I think I will write about, I find myself turning over the top of pages and making small pencil marks to indicate interesting passages.  (I love books, but don’t worship them – sorry if this vandalism offends anyone).  There were many quotes that made me smile:

Three things no one has ever said about me:

You make it look so easy.

You are very mysterious.

You need to take yourself more seriously.

There were quotes I found edifying and thought-provoking:

The path of a cosmonaut is not an easy, triumphant march to glory.  You have to get to know the meaning not just of joy, but also of grief, before being allowed in the spacecraft cabin. This is what the first man in space said.

However, there were only two quotes I marked with pencil.  Then I wrote them down together.  Seeing them like that, they formed their own narrative.  They said something about the dissonance of a woman’s creativity.

1896Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject.  Besides the false views of human nature it will impart… it produces an indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities.

rilkeWhat Rilke said: Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.

The narrative researcher in me, wants to elucidate these quotes, say something about their juxtaposition and provide a feminist framework for analysis.  However, I am going to take my cue from Jenny Offill and let you do that for yourself.


Lock, A and Strong, T. (2010) Social Constructionism: Sources and stirrings in theory and practice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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