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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Lorrie Moore: A Gate At The Stairs

Moore, Lorrie (2010), A Gate at the Stairs, Vintage
ISBN 978-0-307-73942-1

A Gate at the Stairs, published in 2009, is only Lorrie Moore’s third novel, and it was published to great but not unanimous praise. Moore is one of the most highly acclaimed writers of her generation, one, however, who’s been silent for years now, publishing her last book of fiction (the story collection Birds of America), in 1998. Eleven years later, there is this novel, and I’m not sure it was worth the wait. It’s a surprisingly slight book, reading like a clever debut novel rather than like the work of an established wordsmith and recipient of a PEN/Malamud award, among several others. There is no indication that this writer has written and published several books, honing and developing her craft. The strengths of this book are strengths that you’ll be able to find in a great many flashy debuts. There’s no discernible routine in the way that characters, plots and developments are handled, nothing really works here, as far as the craft of writing a novel is concerned. A Gate at the Stairs has one big advantage, and that’s Lorrie Moore’s love for language and her incredible ability to write extraordinary sentences that are surprising, beguiling and consistently interesting. This is the oddest novel: the writing itself, the words and phrases used, this shows an enormous amount of care and instinct, there’s is dullness, too, or the occasional muddled thought that died in mid-sentence. It’s nonetheless true that you can open the book at random, and look even at innocuous sentences, and find pleasurably turned phrases, small inversions. The language seems thoughtful, using puns, allusions, and an enormous amount of brilliant images. But if you look at the broader picture, at the novel as a novel, it seems cobbled together quickly, with little care and less success. There’s nothing thoughtful about the characters or the ideas, all of which seem ramshackle. From the meager, disappointing evidence of A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore seems to me a poet manqué at best: and I see potential for this book in small, condensed portions. I’m willing to bet that could be an interesting publication. This isn’t. Not by a long stretch.

On its surface, A Gate at the Stairs appears to be a realistic tale of one girl’s coming of age in the Midwest. But it’s more than that, it’s a meditation about language and moreover, it’s almost a classic Bildungsroman, condensed into a very short period in the girl’s life, and like most novels in that mode, it’s more of a theoretical exercise than a strictly realistic one. That is one of the reasons why a reading of this novel as a plausible depiction of growing up in the Midwest is bound to be disappointing. There is little depth to any of the characters, even Tassie Keltjin, the protagonist, is a slapdash creation. As she suddenly stumbles into a series of tumultuous events, her actions often seem erratic, the reader could spend hours trying to unravel her motivations and finding a plausible impulse behind her actions. Those motivations are simply not to be had. Her actions and her behavior is necessary as part of the writer’s intellectual schemes, of Lorrie Moore’s attempt to provide a full, coherent and closed account of that crucial moment of adolescence, where we move from childhood to adulthood, in short, to show what she “leaned in college” (‘college’ being a cipher for the whole experience). The characters all seem interesting, and the story can be even moving, but it feels like a slightly skewered dream, an intellectual fantasy played in a literary key. It’s devastating, finally, for the book, that the intellectual foundations of the book are so weak, spineless, without substance, conviction or vision, since it so depends upon them. Like most classic Bildungsroman novels, the book’s protagonist is less like a chess piece moved on a board and more like the center of a web of meanings and allusions, a web that moves, turns and spins, with the movement of its protagonist. The elements of the book exist to accompany the protagonist into adulthood, they help them, test them and teach them. There are characters and events to educate, events to punish, and events to transform. In this case, however, the web is a bit wobbly, and the intellectual commitments sometimes seem as hazy and unclear as the characters’ motivations.

See, it’s not surprising that the characters lack distinctive voices, that the book seems glazed with just one unflaggingly, untiringly clever voice. The characters ceaselessly pun or provide quotable lines. The effect of the particular voice here is negative, however, since it presents the reader with an impression of a certain prim-faced cleverness. Tassie narrates the whole novel and she’s an insufferably self-satisfied little creature, a self-satisfaction fed by Lorrie Moore’s indiscriminate handling of means and events. There seems to be a lack of subtlety at work here. In crude brushstrokes, Tassie’s lessons are doled out, but unlike in most novels of this kind, it’s almost never the protagonist who suffers. People die, become terrorists, become orphans, suffer terrible pain, relationships break up and racist epithets are thrown around, in order for Tassie to learn her lessons. But Tassie herself suffers mostly in an affected, deeply Romanticist kind of way. She is an observer and suffers the exquisite pain of aesthetic disturbance. It’s her sense of superiority, her awful sense of being white, clever and very ‘aware’ that is somewhat assaulted. It’s an impression of an immense ennui, mixed with a delicate kind of Weltschmerz. All of this, naturally, wrapped in a truly extraordinary tortilla of language. This, for example, is a simple description of road-kill:

Walking home, I passed a squirrel that had been hit by a car. Its soft, scarlet guts spilled out of its mouth, as if in a dialog balloon, and the wind gently blew the fur of its tail, as if it were still alive.

And this is a sentence dealing with another visual impression:

It seemed now that the town had started to throw off the monochromatic winter to reveal its bright lunatic pajamas beneath.

This is startlingly written, a description that no other writer I know could pull off. In terms of writing, this is not just raw talent, this is true excellency. And it doesn’t stop there. One of the first things we notice, reading the book, is the obsession with names and naming, with the particulars of language. Puns are employed not just with relish and zest, but with a slow deliberation. The names of places are dismembered, interrogated, mirrored, twirled around. But it soon becomes clear that there’s no real thinking attached to these snippets of ideas. It doesn’t ever go beyond the clear interest and fascination in language as tool, element and object. But even if this aspect disappoints, it’s still fair to say that the book crawls with perfect and surprising images and descriptions. And since Tassie is the narrator, these are her excellent descriptions. The very title of the book is taken from one of her “waltzy ballads”. The whole of A Gate at the Stairs is basically a paean to Tassie Keltjin.

The novel is largely set in the “university town of Troy”, where Tassie is thrust into “a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends”´. Tassie isn’t used to that, coming as she does from a farm. Her father is not your typical farmer, he raises and sells potatoes not for the mass market but for connoisseurs. In this past, Moore creates a contrast between Tassie’s peasant upbringing and life in the big city, without having to commit to the complexities that a truly simple home and a sophisticated education may create. Her father is better than other peasants, we are made aware of that, not just once, but time and time again. That’s why the fact that she despises the poor language skills “[b]ack in Dellacrosse”, for example, doesn’t lead to complicated tensions in the book. Instead, her education serves as a pulpit from which she pronounces her superior verdicts, as in this bit about their use of language.

Prepositions mystified. Almost everyone said “on” accident instead of “by”. They said “I’m bored of that” or “Wanna come with?” They pronounced “milk” to rhyme with “elk” and “milieu” as “miloo”, as in skip to my loo – when they said it at all. And they used tenses like “I’d been gonna.” As in “I’d been gonna do that but then I never got around toot.” It was the hypothetical conditional past […].

There’s a smirk hidden in these pronouncements and the final, happy coinage. The impression we have of her is that of a self-satisfied minor writer, critic or editor, with a narrow knowledge of grammar and linguistics, who nonetheless feels empowered to correct other people’s use of grammar. We all know these nitwits, and we all know that actual grammars and dictionaries mostly contradict their pompous judgments of what is ‘bad’ or ‘incorrect’ language, but we also know that they themselves tend to be incorrigible, huffy, self-righteous. That’s because their positions, while mostly shunned by actual linguists, are supported by a broad alliance of creative writing lecturers, English composition teachers with an ax to grind, or literary critics, tenured at universities led by their accountants logic. With the academic stamp of approval, these philistines stampede through our literary lives, dumping their nuggets of wisdom left and right. And here is the exact reason why this is relevant to A Gate at the Stairs, because Tassie, too, is empowered by college education. We the readers don’t know her outside of that intellectual frame. Empowered by the networks of knowledge and power, she doesn’t hesitate to lord it over those less privileged.

The failure of Moore to extract something meaningful from the raw material she’s amassed is even more stunning when we compare A Gate at the Stairs to two other American novels, Lisa Alther’s 1976 Kinflicks, and more to the point, John Williams’ extraordinary novel Stoner, published in 1965, and reprinted by the great NYRB imprint in 2006. The comparison to Kinflicks highlights the excess of satire that is inherent in this kind of set-up. Kinflicks, to this day Lisa Alther’s best novel, is like an incessant flood of satiric laughter that pools around more serious issues of the time depicted. It’s sobering to see how little humor runs through Moore’s book, and how it’s a dried up cleverness that plays not for laughter but for applause. There is undoubtedly a certain delight to be wrenched from A Gate of the Stairs, but it’s a harsh delight, a joy at watching mere technical prowess. The generousness that accompanies true laughter is completely absent from Moore’s mirthless pages. The contrast to Stoner is a different one. Stoner is the novel of a man, the eponymous Stoner, born into rural poverty, who decides to go to university and starts pursuing an academic career. In Stoner we find a convincing depiction of the contrast between poverty and ‘proper education’. Stoner’s very identity is on the line in all this, and the result of his own journey to adulthood is a troubled, conflicted personality. There is no self-satisfaction in the character of Stoner, who is genuinely attracted by knowledge, who is on a constant quest to do right by his ideals which are a mix of his parents’ ideals and his own, hard won ones. Stoner is a memorable novel, an insightful, well written affair that is so convincing one might call it necessary. A necessary work, serious about its subject, which is everything that A Gate at the Stairs is not. The utter obliviousness to the darkness, to the problematics of entitlement, that Lorrie Moore displays is frightful, and, I can’t help but emphasize it: surprising. Such a well-written book, the language of which easily surpasses both Stoner and Kinflicks, and yet such a blind, witless and annoying read.

The plot starts with Tassie Keltjin needing a job in order to support herself, and she finds an opening as a babysitter for a wealthy couple. The husband is a scientist, and the wife runs a gourmet restaurant, and when they hire Tassie, they don’t even have a child to be baby sat yet. In a series of scurrilous encounters and intriguing vignettes, the couple, with the help of Tassie, tries to adopt a black baby, which quest finally succeeds. But this success sets in motion a cavalcade of events that will ultimately shake the worlds of each one involved. Not the worlds of Lorrie Moore or the intellectual house that Tassie Keltjin built, though. Here, everything is in place, although, as I mentioned, the commitments are a bit off, and the thinking hazy and muddled. The couple serves as a representation of the arrogant NY elite. They are rich, they are Atheists and they are do-gooders, filled to the brim with ideas about the perniciousness of racism. Regularly, they meet with other parents of adopted black children, and fill the room with phrases that Tassie is quick to recognize as empty and vapid, about diversity and dichotomies, yadda yadda. But the funny thing is that the talk, while consisting less of thinking and more of fashionable talking points, is not wrong. The content is not inherently ridiculous, but the book takes great pains to make it seem so, by means of exaggerations, by caricature and by branding some that take part in this discussion as hypocrites. Attacking a speaker’s moral fiber doesn’t invalidate his points, but Lorrie Moore, I take it, disagrees. I think that this attitude is one that has also led to the broad renunciation of ‘political correctness’. Reactionary linguists such as Steven Pinker, and talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh have perfected this rhetoric, which banks on the idea that people are what they are and no amount of perfumed language will change that. Pointing out that white, able-bodied males such as themselves are the main beneficiaries of political incorrectness may be petty.

However, while the basic ideas, sketched straw men rather than elaborated, are not ridiculous, the form context and the setting are indeed problematic. There is, indeed, a hypocrisy in the whole set piece, and its is the fact that Moore shows us privileged people indulging in acts of appropriation, of bodies, minds, and cultures. We know that writing can be used for oppression, and speech can be used (and mostly is) to govern the speechless. This insight, however, is beyond Tassie, and her depiction of a Muslim boyfriend she momentarily acquires, proves to be just the same kind of defining, dominating, governing speech. The depiction I mentioned is that an odd, almost unexplainable one, that of a young man, a fellow student with a darker skin, who turns out to be not just a Muslim, but a fellow traveler of terrorists. This book is set shortly after 9/11, in a time when suspicions towards Muslims and Arabs were rising steadily, and in Moore’s book there is only one man of Arab descent, and he’s both a Muslim and a sympathizer with the goals and means of terrorists.

This episode is the nadir of the whole sorry book. Nothing in Moore’s novel really coheres, which reads like a hastily edited manuscript created by pasting in small snippets of fictional ideas, but this last episode is mind-bogglingly nonsensical, unconnected to the larger whole of the novel and ridiculous in almost every single way. It caps a novel that is so complacent and self-absorbed as to be completely irrelevant. Its handling of characters is largely incompetent, so much so, indeed, that you need to stop following characters and plot and just take things as they come. But, as I said earlier, even if we allow for the fact that this is not a realistic novel but a novel, so to say, of ideas, the outcome is less than satisfying. Both ideas and narrative possibilities are tossed into the air either to be forgotten or to be tied off untidily at the end. It gets so bad that at one point I thought maybe the book was a satire, satirizing Tassie Keltjin, her point of view and those who share her point of view, but even this, ultimately, didn’t pan out, because the book wraps up in one great conciliatory movement. It situates the book firmly among other coming of age tales, and confirms the book’s utter mediocrity. A Gate at the Stairs is one severe disappointment, a gaudy empty box that smells a bit funny. Do not read this book.