Liquor & Leaves #7

Offill

***NOTE: Once again, a post-dated Lenten special.***

Liquor from two weeks ago: The Rub, made at Cochon (New Orleans, LA)
Leaves from two weeks ago: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation

I enjoyed Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation a lot, at times. It’s built like David Markson’s later novels, around fragments & little vignettes, shards of dark light rather than a running stream. Because it moves mostly in chronological order and because that narrative involves a single family (and one narrator) instead of many narratives (and long distances between narrative connections), it’s more straightforward & less challenging than, say, This Is Not a Novel or Vanishing Point or The Last Novel. It’s got more dialogue, and more scenes. So, it’s easier—Offill’s mainstreamed an experimental mode, to render it accessible. It’s easier to make it cohere in my mind. It’s a baby-steps version of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, in that it follows one woman’s jagged and discontinuous consciousness in minute detail as she reaches a crisis point, but makes it not so hard to follow as Markson’s opus. While I don’t mean the preceding sentence as an insult at all, I am annoyed by how many critics have written about this novel as a Totally New Never Before Done Thing. Even the voice—acerbic, blunt, revealing and cagey all at once, steely in its concern over art & culture—shares a tone with Markson’s “Writer.” There are differences, though, and they are key. Family and especially motherhood rings true and resonant here, and Offill’s is strong in conveying the ever-present self-questioning that comes with marriage and parenthood. Dept.’s narrator gives voice to the uneasy questions that both institutions raise in our hearts and heads. And that voice shifts, from 1st-person to 3rd-person and finally to 1st-person plural as the family weathers a well-wrought but predictable crisis. (Rhymes with “skinfidelity.”) Sometimes, though, I share Robert Christgau’s wondering if literary fiction is harder on marriage than life actually is. In short: I’m tired of too-hard marriages in novels at the expense of good, reasonably happy (if ever-complicated) partnerships. And I’m exhausted by babies as monsters unraveling our lives, and wondering (as Xgau—a long-married father—does implicitly) if marriage is just harder for writers to process or to convey as anything other than quiet conflict, and if maybe we should look to other sources for wisdom on this front. (On the same front, I don’t look to stand-up comics, necessarily, for insight into family and community and non-narcissistic modes of being in the world. Self-absorption and an over-reliance on “individualism” [which has a way of looking like every other comedian’s independence, right down to the cocaine addiction] is part of the territory.) And the resolution, involving the husband’s chagrined comeuppance—why is it always the husband who has the affair in literary fiction, unlike in the 46% of American marriages in which adultery occurs?—and a move to the country is way too Hollywood for the novel’s own good. (Maybe the unnamed wife ending up with her philosopher friend would have been equally problematic, but at least it would have been interesting.) All of which is to say that I like the Offill, often quite a lot, but that I’ve read her, perhaps too often, before.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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