Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Offill, Jenny, Dept. of Speculation, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-345-80687-1

If you think back on the final two pages of Michael Chabon’s sophomore novel Wonder Boys, you’ll remember it ends with the writer-protagonist jettisoning his monstrous manuscript, “the whole exploded clockwork” – he calibrates his “writerly perception of depth” and sets out to write a book that “sounds true,” written in the rhythms of daily domestic life and not the writerly obsessiveness of his previous alcohol fueled existence. This – the recalibration, the rejection of an unwieldy manuscript failure, it has a mirror in Chabon’s own life, who, after his jaunty little debut novel, spent some years on a large manuscript that he eventually abandoned. This is all to say that Jenny Offill’s own sophomore novel Dept. of Speculation has a similar sense. Offill’s narrator-protagonist, the nameless “wife,” works at a college, and is struggling to complete a second novel, constantly fielding requests by friends, colleagues and acquaintances to produce this difficult second book. At the same time, Dept. of Speculation is, in some sense, that second novel, published 14 years after Offill’s debut. And much as Chabon wove a fictional narrative around the personal struggle to produce a good second novel, Offill’s book tells a story of a disintegrating relationship.

It starts uneventfully, describing academic life, a lovely marriage and an “evil” but adorable child. Things go a bit off the rails when the husband turns out to be an adulterer, but Offill fills even the lovely charming early portions with shadow and doubt. Being a writer and being a teacher and being a wife and mother are three different kinds of being, and she never feels quite adequate to all of them. Offill’s style is flat, in the way many contemporary ‘experimental’ dullards are, but she rises above them by making the flatness a part of the narrative. The structure, full of short sentences and short paragraphs, seems fragmented, but it isn’t really. It’s sequential and coherent, but the paratactic perniciousness of the book creates a distance, makes us follow the narrator into her own stressed, unhappy, distracted mind. As, towards the end of the novel, things go bad, the narrator switches to talking about herself in the third person, further increasing an effect that has been part of the novel all along. This is a surprisingly rich novel, for all its straightforward elements, and the various detailed kinds of flatness in it. The first time I read it I read it in one sitting and it’s hard to imagine the book working when broken into multiple sittings. The book’s intense coherence would fall apart and all you’d be left with would be some angsty statements in short sentences and short paragraphs.

Dept. of Speculation is interesting in how it uses form without abandoning emotional significance. There’s the instrumentalized flatness of course, which the book uses well, in contrast to some other widely praised, intensely dull recent prose works. She also uses our narrative expectations in undermining our readings. As I said, the switch from first person to third person, with no accompanying stylistic change, seems to be done in line with the other attempts to create some distance in the book. At the same time, Offill fills her novel with doubt. There is the narrator’s side gig of being a ghost writer for a failed astronaut businessman (failed as astronaut, not as businessman). It’s a curious insertion into a book that doesn’t stray that far afield with other details. Offill’s narrator is economical with details. We don’t even get names for anybody involved, there’s not a lot of extraneous description, the book obsessively circles the same topics: writerly impotence, anxiety, love and some details of domestic life. Offill is exceptionally disciplined, so the ghost writing seems strange. One obvious effect is to show the difference between writing about one’s own life or follow one’s own inspiration on the one hand, and just lending your words to someone else’s life, someone else’s partially imagined experience. Another effect comes later. There’s a scene where her husband writes a short story and files it among her class work. The details remind her of her own life, but she assumes a female student who recently attempted suicide, is behind those words. This is a kind of ghostwriting too, but while in ghostwritten books, the real author spends their existence behind the curtain, in this case, the narrator becomes the audience.

Clearly the novel is preoccupied, outside of the details of the story of domestic bliss and upheaval, with the authenticity and directness of writing, and while we may assume that the narrator at some point starts talking about herself in the third person, which reflects her increasingly troubled state of mind, an equally plausible possibility asks us to question our assumptions regarding narrator/protagonist/writer. I will admit, this is the second time I started this book. First attempt, last year, I abandoned the book because I was bored. But I think I was wrong. This book is actually quite interesting, and it uses its limited palette, and its humdrum plot in order to do something with plot and narrative. In many ways it reads, once you resolve to read it this way, like a very classic postmodern work from the 70s, but without the now-boring irony and laid-back chuckle at life and people.

The story it tells, despite what I think is some intense postmodern tomfoolery, is still moving, still emotionally resonant. And that is no small feat. Overall, I think, Offill walks a very thin line here. It’s playful and interesting, but also written with substance and purpose (unlike, for example, the Luiselli novel which I didn’t find sustaining beyond its levels of playfulness). It’s emotional and direct without being drab and dull. What I most appreciate is how Offill pulls off this flat style without joining the ranks of all the bores like Blake Butler, who I think is a better editor than novelist. I’d like to repeat this: I think this book is fundamentally interesting, and I will likely return to it at some point to look at it from yet another angle. There’s other books I read this week and might review, like Brit Bennett’s debut novel, that I found so uninteresting, I considered getting rid of my copy. Bennett’s book is maudlin, clichéd, socially and formally conservative. It’s also much less of a tightrope walk. Whatever Bennett does, it does so forcefully, with all possible risks smashed out of the book by an MFA reading group. Offill takes a risk, I think. And for a slim book like that, it offers a bunch of angles to its readers, all of which involve rereading the whole book and its details. The student who attempted suicide, for example, is given quite a bit of space, and her inclusion raises questions of genre and representation, that I cannot go into here.

One interesting aspect of the book that I want to mention in closing is that in some ways the novel functions like a funhouse mirror of John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which took both book nerds and the wider reading public by storm when it was republished in 2008. I have some…issues? I guess, with that novel, but that’s maybe for a different post or a different venue. It’s curious though, that it’s always these kinds of books that do well upon being rediscovered. Stoner, and the work of, what’s that Hungarian called? Sándor Márai, that’s it, and who could forget Hans Fallada’s unfortunate resurrection, after he was correctly buried by German critics in the 1950s. But, again, that’s not the point here. What I did want to say is that Dept. of Speculation feels in so many ways like a companion piece to Stoner that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was partially intentional. I mean, obviously the campus novel has a long tradition, and one wishes that some novels in the genre would be reread more often, like Jarrell’s funny novel, but in many ways Offill’s book feels like a direct reply to Stoner. And I don’t merely mean in the way the two novels employ gender. Offill’s attitude towards realism and representation, which I think I sketched earlier, also feels like part of a communication with John Williams. Or maybe not. It’s a good book, is all.



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A brief personal note on Bachmann’s “Malina”

Last Christmas I visited Vienna for the first time in my life – an overwhelming experience. And a brief one. I visited for slightly less than 24 hours, a flu-stained night in the Weißgerber district inclusive. I went through a long checklist of places, cramming them all into my tight schedule, including multiple bookshops and food places. Through all this, however, I evaded one specific place, despite being rather close to it at numerous times: I did not visit the Ungargasse, the street immortalized in Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina. That novel’s protagonist lived in Ungargasse 6, while Ivan, her lover, lived in Ungargasse 9, across the street. Bachmann herself never actually lived there, but she did live in the immediately adjacent Beatrixgasse.

I feel it’s hard to explain how important that novel is for me as a person. I mean, I have strong emotional attachments to a number of Austrian writers, like Josef Winkler, Hertha Kräftner, and I adore and admire the complete work of Ingeborg Bachmann, of which I own pretty much everything that’s ever been published, plus letters and the occasional secondary work. But for some reason, since high school, Malina has exerted a special kind of pull on me (I think the only German-language prose writer who has close to the same effect on me is Uwe Johnson). I considered at some point writing a review or essay about the novel, but I think it’s entirely impossible for me.

Malina is a difficult book, and critics like to point to supposed weaknesses, to strangenesses of structure and plot, to odd remarks; it’s a complex book that eludes easy classification. It’s also a book that readers have tried to simplify by reading it for autobiographical notes and import.

I have been rereading a new book on Bachmann by Ina Hartwig this past week, called Wer war Ingeborg Bachmann? Its publication right on the heels of the first two volumes of the new collected edition of Bachmann’s work, edited by Hans Höller, underlines a currently resurgent interest in Bachmann’s life. This new edition of Bachmann’s work is radically focused on Bachmann’s personal life – last year also saw the first volume of Uwe Johnson’s collected works being published. The editors of that edition started with Johnson’s first published novel (Johnson’s first written novel, Ingrid Babendererde, a complicated manuscript, isn’t slated for publication until much later). Höller does not begin with Bachmann’s first published poetry, or her early radio plays, or her earliest published prose. It starts with her last unpublished and unfinished novel, and a collection of her notes she took in/for therapy. There’s nothing that’s more personal than the latter, and her unpublished, and unfinished prose often reads like an open wound, dealing with loss, violence, sexuality and patriarchy. Höller makes his interest and focus known. He also specifically mentions, teasingly, that he will be publishing the Bachmann/Frisch letters, an almost mythical set of texts about a failed relationship which is detailed in only one longer text, Max Frisch’s novel Montauk.

There’s an unpleasant whiff to Höller’s project. It’s not new, this prurient interest in Bachmann. In a fantastic 1997 book-length essay, Ingeborg Bachmann und die literarische öffentlichkeit, Klaus Amann already details the distasteful nature of this interest, and how it harms Bachmann’s work. And to be clear – I am not innocent in this: I have read all her published letters cover to cover. I have read Höller’s two Bachmann books cover to cover and assembled a wealth of notes on them. I will read everything i can get my hands on.

But reading Ina Hartwig’s book, I found striking how it keeps circling back to the three late novels, the published Malina, and the unpublished Buch Franza and Fanny Goldmann. How it tries to read her life from these clues, and takes details of her life to “elucidate” details from the novel. Hartwig’s book has other oddities (the book is completely permeated by a bizarre obsession with Bachmann’s looks, to the point that she asked multiple interviewees whether they thought Bachmann colored her hair), but as a reader of Malina for all my adult, and most of my teenage life, Hartwig’s fleecing of Malina for clues was…unpleasant, I guess. And not from an ethical point of view. But it seemed to be based on a profound misreading of Bachmann’s text, which is vibrant with ambiguity and significance. It’s a strange spectacle to watch a book one cares so much about be so shallowly treated.

And maybe it’s just me. I cannot explain why I was so terrified to go to Ungargasse. Maybe because I am not convinced that the street I know from the book is there. That it’s visitable. It’s a strange book. And clearly I cannot write cogently about it.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief

Garner, Helen (2014), This House of Grief: Story of a Murder Trial, Text Publishing
ISBN 9-781925-240689

I had previously only read one other book by Helen Garner – and it was a novel. This House of Grief is a nonfiction account of a murder trial. And it’s so damn good that I now own three more books by Garner. I will admit, I have a soft spot for true crime and have spent too much time looking up details and backgrounds for all the various true crime accounts I have consumed – Podcasts, books, Netflix TV shows….but never once during or after reading Garner’s story was I tempted to draw in outside sources to fill in the picture. And that’s because this book lives somewhere outside of these concerns with crime and prurient interest. Somehow, Garner succeeded in crafting a mournful book about a murderer that exists on a different plane. This is a story about a man who murdered his children, yes, but it’s also the story of an elderly novelist and journalist who attends his trial, who tries to wrap her mind around this crime, around the man accused of it, and the doomed dance of his defender in court. Garner pays attention to voice and gestures, to faces and bodies, creating before our eyes a powerful portrait of an instance of humanity having failed – for whatever reason.

The father who killed his children never admits to his deeds, and so Garner – and we as readers – are never offered an explanation, there’s nothing relieving us from the darkness at the heart of this criminal act. There’s no Mindhunters-like psychological framing and explanation, no confession of passions run amuck. The prosecutor, Garner herself and some other people who have been drawn into the maelstrom of this trial, they all offer some small explanations. Frustration, jealousy, sadness, anger. These are all possibilities, but what unites them all is the shocking way in which they are insufficient to explain what happened here. None of these seem to be enough to explain why a man would drown his children that he appeared to love very much. And Garner isn’t alone watching this trial. She brings along a teenager who has the requisite time, and now and then she also talks to lawyer friends of hers. This constant dialogue with others creates a kind of chorus of people none of which have any doubt of the father’s guilt. He is clearly, obviously guilty, he smells of guilt to Garner – and thus to us. And all of it is told in a language that is almost without flaw. Elegant, clear, Garner summons an army of short sentences and phrases, only occasionally letting the spill all over the page in small poetic images and the author’s acute distress. This trial – and the book- must have been hard to live with. And we are fortunate that Garner persevered.

In this time of #metoo and the crumbling façade of violent and mediocre masculinity, this is a curious time to be writing this book. True, it came out in 2014, before the Zeitgeist shifted so significantly in 2017 – but still. I have not read Garner’s other nonfiction books, but from some overviews I saw that The First Stone, Garner’s 1995 study of a sexual harassment case, garnered the kind of critical attention that makes me suspect its implied thesis hews rather close to the one that Katie Roiphe centered in her own book on a similar topic, the now infamous The Morning After. Whenever Roiphe puts pen to paper these days to comment on sexual harassment, there’s a chorus from twitter, blogs and many such sources, reminding all of us that this is the author of The Morning After and thus we should be disregarding her writings and opinions. And it’s true that much of that book is unpleasant to read and distorted a very real problem. If Garner’s The First Stone went into a similar direction, it seems fortunate that writing the book didn’t tarnish her reputation. And in many ways, This House of Grief represents a kind of about-face, a shift in emphasis.

Garner’s book never leaves us in doubt: this man is guilty. And his guilt is connected to things Garner never really manages to suss out. The opaque horror at the core of the book is, however, insistently connected to various failures of masculinity, to male anxiety, to masculine violence and dread. This is where all of the explanations, however incomplete, inefficient, or unlikely they may be, lead. If this was a novel, you’d consider it overdetermined, too constructed, too constricted by the author’s will to make it all cohere. But here we are. From the unlikely name of the accused, Robert Farquharson, to the helpless dance of his defender and the wise voice of Garner’s teenage companion, it all coheres, in a compelling but distressing way. One of Garner’s epigraphs to the book quotes a lawyer “walking past,” who says that “[Robert Farquharson] can’t possibly have done it. But there’s no other explanation.” We get small snippets of crime scene investigations, of small doubts offered, but they are drowned in the better sense that the prosecution’s case makes. That man murdered his children – in part because he was a man and couldn’t deal with what was expected of him.

Gender is woven throughout the book. Later in the book we learn of the endless devotion shown to Farquharson by his sisters, and even, to a point, by his ex wife. We learn of the pitfalls of this kind of devotion, but mainly, we are explained, often implicitly, of the way Robert Farquharson fails to deal with his failures. Financially on the cliffs, left by his wife for the constructor who was employed by them, with severely reduced contact to his children, Farquharson doesn’t do anything sensible, he doesn’t pick himself up, he doesn’t move on, he doesn’t try other projects, he wallows in his failures. The trial specifically notes, absent any admission or confession by Farquharson himself, that driving a shabby old car would naturally feel emasculating and humiliating, an assumption that most people involved in the case seem to share. Garner includes a curious discussion of masculine attractiveness in it:

“But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight in Cindy Farquarson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect. Spellbound on the back veranda between my two grandsons, I remembered Camille Paglia’s coat-trailing remark that if women were running the world, we’d still be living in grass huts.”

If Roiphe is a bit infamous among progressives, Paglia has, since publishing her (inexplicably) still-read tome on literature that’s short on analysis and long on caustic diatribes, become a veritable troll, intensely supportive of fringe anti-feminist opinions. Garner’s inclusion of Paglia here is curious. It makes no contextual sense that she’d cite Paglia as an authority here. Instead, what we are offered is a complicated tableau of masculinity, feminity and attraction that is presented as contradictory.

Farquharson maintains to the end, and one assumes, to this day, that what happened was an accident, that he blacked out due to a freak medical condition. We, however, stare at his horrible deeds, and try to understand them from the explanations offered, all of which somehow come back to notions of injured manhood. There’s a specific, unpleasant kind of violence that tends to accompany people socialized as male, at least in our societies, our kind of socialization. Helen Garner, as an observer in the courtroom, and her teenage friend, serves as a kind of Greek chorus to all this. Woeful cries, exclamations, repetitions. In a sense we don’t need to be told what Farquharson’s fault, his ἁμαρτία is. It is implied in the darkness under the words, under every gesture. The very inexplicability of it, which rubs up against the overall very simple case, the amplitude of evidence feeds this sense. Elisabeth Roudinesco, in an early chapter of La Part Obscure de Nous-Mêmes, points to the shifting explanations of what the “perverted” people are – how do we contextualize their missteps. And, she says, as divine explanations (with demons preying on those weak of faith, found themselves on the retreat, the answers came slower, and with more contradictions. Later chapters invoking Peter Singer point to how complicated, really, these explanations have become. In This House of Grief, on the one hand, we are given an extremely simple situation, a biblical scenario, if you will, but the father’s silence, and the terror that always comes with these stark, hard to understand these crimes, these inhumane human decisions hark back to Roudinesco’s discussion of the dark parts within us. Greed, anger, these are easy to grasp, but what happened in Farquharson’s head, in his car, seems more easily explained with demons, the devil, schizophrenia, one of these. But there are no demons, there’s no devil and Farquharson was sound of mind. So what now?

As it happens, Garner has a horrible little theory of her own, which the trial judge and defense lawyer both remove from the courtroom: “the long black thread of Farquharson’s ‘depression’.” It is not to be discussed, it is not to be presented to a jury. Much of the book is spent watching Garner watch the defense fail, in a kind of replication of Farquharson’s previous failures:

“the final fortnight of evidence was like watching, in ghastly slow motion, a man slither down the face of a cliff. Sometimes his shirt would snag on a protruding branch, or his fall would be arrested by a tiny ledge, a fragile outcrop; but the fabric would stretch and snap, the narrow shelf would crumble, and down he would go again, feet first, eyes wide open, arms outstretched into the void.”

But while watching this cascade of failures, by Farquharson, by his lawyer, by his defense, his humanity, Garner reaches into the bag of possibilities, and draws out the idea of attempted suicide. Taking his children with him, Farquharson attempted to remove his presence from the world, remove his failure, his inadequacy, and commit murder as a horrible way to wipe the slate completely clean. This idea Garner mentions fairly early, but she doesn’t let go of it. The only explanation she can think of to escape the horror of unexplainable murder is a more graspable, more understandable murder-suicide. There are books on this. This we can understand, this we have studied. Ultimately, it’s unimportant whether Garner is right. This House of Grief is only partially about Farquharson’s trial. It is about a writer trying to deal with something inexplicable and to contain it in clean, safe language. It is an enormous book.

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For what it’s worth…

…here is Deborah Smith in her own words in the LARB, published yesterday. Look, I started to annotate the thing in my head (because, I mean, oh man), but ultimately, I found I’ve spent too much energy on this already, particularly with this improvised rant. Smith’s essay speaks for itself. I’m tired.

On being grouchy about #Translation and Han Kang

This is a short note regarding, once again, after this post, the Han Kang / Deborah Smith debate. I’m writing this directly into the CMS so excuse any infelicities or oddities beyond the usual.

I do not necessarily wish to re-open the discussion about translation. I’ve had many frustrating, mind-numbing discussions with people on the topic. I’ve heard all kinds of terrible arguments. The most recent text about it, a poetically written article in le New Yorker, is interesting in that it doesn’t really try to defend the indefensible, despite praising, overall, the way Smith and Han Kang deal with translation.

The author in the New Yorker, Jiayang Fan, says at some point, “This isn’t what’s normally meant by translation.” – and she’s right. And for all I care the debate can end here. That is not what we mean when we say translation. And Han Kang’s English books, seeing as they can indeed best be described as a “collaborative work,” should have Deborah Smith’s name on the cover. I have no problems with invasive translations if they are marked as such. Look. I have two volumes of translations by Paul Celan on the shelf. They are some of my most cherished books. Celan was a linguistic marvel. BUT all of the poems read as if they had been written or edited by Celan. They are, to a very large extent, Celan poems, not poems by Mandelstam. It’s not subtle: I have two slim German volumes of Ungaretti’s poems here, one with Celan’s renditions, one with Bachmann’s. You can immediately point out which are Celan’s. It’s incredibly clear and obvious.

Look, for someone of little talent and skill like me who speaks too few languages, who travels little, lives in the country he grew up in etc., translations are necessary and at the same time a matter of trust. I trust you, translator, to render for me the work of a writer who I cannot read in his own words. And sometimes this involves overlooking some obvious issues. I adore Megan McDowell’s translations. And not because she’s such a transcendent translator: most of my adoration stems from the fact that the books she picked for translation are so good. I can see the original shine through in weird spots, but that’s fine. I trust Megan McDowell to give me the book as best she can. That’s “what’s normally meant by translation.”

Jiayan Fan, in her New Yorker article, also says “the latitude of Robert Lowell’s poetic “imitations” comes to mind.” – and that’s entirely accurate. I have written about that book of Lowell’s, and smarter people than me have pointed to its many many issues. Among the problems is that sometimes, Lowell was just re-mixing older translations. Sometimes he would translate texts from languages he didn’t speak in the first place. That is, indeed, not “what’s normally meant by translation.” And I admire Lowell’s Imitations. I think it’s one of his best books. However, none of these translations should be given to someone interested in, Say, Osip Mandelstam.

Earlier in the same article, the author dismisses Charse Yun’s careful criticism by saying that the things he notes are peripheral. They are not “the questions at the heart of Han’s work.” – Indeed, the debate about Deborah Smith’s translations goes to the heart of what we believe literature is. If we think literature is a message, some deeper content that can be paraphrased any which way, where the actual shape and color of the prose is merely incidental, then yes, maybe these are good translations. But if we think literature is made of words and words matter, then, fuck no. All translations are imperfect in some way, and to be honest, I don’t entirely believe in the translatability of poetry in the strict sense at all. But translators – we, or let’s say, I, trust them with doing their best to do this.

The article by Jiayan Fan suggests that, eh, the actual words on the page – not so important. What counts are the deeper questions and issues. The “greater fidelity” to what Han Kang has to say, not the measly detail of how she says it. It’s not an uncommon attitude. I have seen very popular short stories praised recently that were horrifically written as prose, but praised as “well written” – a statement that, upon reflection, referred to structure and the verisimilitude of the events depicted. But I, personally, don’t share that attitude. I don’t understand how anyone interested in literature can share that attitude, but I accept that I may be in the minority here. That is, I think, the basic difference and the bottom line here. That is why discussions on the topic have been so frustrating for me. I can accept that many people disagree.


And that would be all I have to say about the New Yorker article and the situation overall, but I have two remarks to add. Bug-bears if you will. One is every single review that discusses Han Kang’s “style” in English. I don’t care whether you believe the words matter (and thus we get Deborah Smith’s intense distortion of Kang) or whether you think the “deeper questions” matter (and thus we get “a greater fidelity” (to quote Smith)). Let’s be clear: under no circumstances are you getting Han Kang’s style or an approximation of it. The difference between the two positions doesn’t touch this question. The facts as raised by Charse Yun are clear. The difference between me and the millions of fans and defenders of the Kang/Smith collaborations is that they think it’s irrelevant. If you claim you’re getting Han Kang’s style you’re wrong.

The same goes for the idea that maybe Deborah Smith is a better translator in her newer books, less invasive, producing more of “what’s usually meant by translation.” This should be incredibly easy to test. Charse Yun makes clear claims: “Han’s sentences are spare and quiet, sometimes ending in fragments. In contrast, Smith uses a high, formal style with lyrical flourishes. As one critic noted, the translation has a “nineteenth-century ring” to it, reminiscent of Chekhov.” Look at the new translations. Has the style of the books changed? Is it more sparse now? Are the lyrical flourishes gone? I looked at the more recent translations and the answer is: no. And that should be immediately clear to any reader. I am honestly baffled by this suggestion of her maybe having changed her ways. It’s testable. There’s no need to throw up your hands and say “maybe!” GOOD LORD.

I’m sorry if this ran a bit long. Forgive me. This is not a theoretical essay, though I may have a draft of one lying around somewhere (focusing more on this aspect). This is just me sitting here being a bit upset. The best book on translation I have personally read, by the way, makes a case for translation as inspired deviance. I am not per se critical of that position. I guess I am writing as someone depending on that trust, that unspoken contract between me and the translator.