DEPT. OF SPECULATION. By Jenny Offill. Knopf. 180 pages. $22.95.
At one point in her compact, smoking novel, "Dept. of Speculation," Jenny Offill quotes the poet Rilke: "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."
So what dangers could possibly threaten Offill's protagonist, a writer with one novel to her credit, a gig teaching creative writing, a nice husband, an adored baby, an apartment in Brooklyn, and many friends at the ready?
Try loneliness, love, outrage, infidelity. Offill mixes "Magic and Dread" (the title of a class the narrator teaches) so expertly that neither seems possible without the other. The resulting amalgam carries her hero through wayward experiences and to the other side of danger.
Before her plans were derailed by marriage and motherhood, the narrator aspired to be an "art monster," one of those single-minded geniuses who never concern themselves with mundane things. Nabokov, she points out, "didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him."
Like a character who finds herself in the wrong book, Offill's protagonist (sometimes "I," sometimes "the wife," but never named) shuffles and reshuffles the facts of her life, as if searching for the alignment that will transmit ultimate meaning. It turns out she was an art monster after all, crafting a fractured portrait of the artist out of the mind's scraps.
Just after she publishes her first (and only) novel, the wife meets the husband. They are sweetly and simply in love, a love that Offill dramatizes in spare, telegraphed details, each so precise that it's hard to imagine the book without even one of them: "You called me. I called you. Come over, come over, we said."
When the weather changes, she writes, "I bought a warmer coat with many ingenuous pockets. You put your hands in all of them."
Once the baby comes, the emotional velocity picks up. The baby has colic, will only sleep in the Rite Aid, and has a way of carving the wife's day into shreds. But she is also the most fully realized character in the book, made vivid by her mother's attention. The first time she says the word daughter to a stranger, the narrator remembers her "heart beating so fast, as if I might be arrested."
Much later, the wife quotes Martin Luther: "Faith resides under the left nipple." The sense of a secret, almost illicit, love for the daughter runs through the novel. It is she who brings the small perspective of the domestic novel into the large perspective of the cosmos. This is a huge love; when the husband has an affair that threatens their little world, the wife floats away, untethered.
The husband's affair with a younger woman happens almost exactly at the midway point of "Dept. of Speculation." Suddenly, the point of view shifts. Up to then, the wife has spoken in the first person to "you," her husband. Now, distance enters their world; they are "the wife" and "the husband." The wife's dreams of a phantom life as art monster give way to a more raw ache. Always clever, she thinks, "If only they were French, this would all feel different." But they aren't French, and the couple go often into what she calls "The Little Theater of Hurt Feelings." They emerge scraped from all the truth-telling.
Yet the wife also has a heightened sense of meaning everywhere. Suddenly, men notice her. She's "like a taxi whose light just went on." Songs speak directly to her: a line like "Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you?" has direct personal relevance.
Throughout, Offill seeds her novel with facts of every sort: stories of Russian cosmonauts; theories of evolutionary biologists; and, above all else, the wisdom of saints, philosophers and poets. Every love story is its own creation story. Offill takes us on a spiritual journey from the birth of her little family, through its growing pains and death throes, to the sweetness of regeneration through suffering.
In her telling, the small (microscopic memories, the single family unit) becomes large and connects to what's grand in the universe. By the final pages, the wife, who has floated away, is now back on Earth, hungry for something delicious and full of desires: "The air tastes good."
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.