Not every great book comes across as one when you go to summarize it. Take Jenny Offill's new novel, Dept. of Speculation, which I would call a great book. It has the kind of plot that, on paper, sounds regrettably banal: a woman writer, living a materially comfortable life in Brooklyn, struggles through a familiar sort of personal, professional, and even spiritual crisis. She is failing to write a second novel, she has a child whom she loves but also finds a burden, and the household suffers from bedbugs. All the while, the narrator's relationship with her husband crumbles from the kind of interior romantic neglect that seems to afflict early parenthood.
There are several elements in there that set Offill's book up against current literary tastes. For one thing – don't repeat this anywhere you might be overheard in Brooklyn – not everyone has the same bottomless interest in the travails of the writing life that writers do. For another, stories of the materially comfortable have had trouble lately moving beyond their narrow set. Think of the bad rap a book like Offill's can get: so "Eat, Pray, Love," so "privileged," so "narcissistic."
But Offill manages to rise to the challenge, largely through using an inventive form. Her novel is not quite recognizable as a novel and yet not quite a book of aphorisms, either. There are 46 chapters, each broken up into at least 10 short, epigrammatic paragraphs. Forgive me for all the quoting I'm about to do, but the effect is quite hard to describe in secondary terms:
And that phrase – "sleeping like a baby." Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.
A paragraph like that just hangs there, like a lone planet in space, in the narrative. In fact planets, astronauts, and stars are also subjects the narrator of this fragmentary story is very interested in:
My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles. This is the mnemonic they give her to remember the order of the planets.
But she's not primarily focused on celestial bodies as a schoolroom subject. Rather, it's the way staring at the stars gets tangled up with human love, a subject the speaker is researching for the book she is ghostwriting. She comes across the appropriately star-crossed lovers involved in the Voyager space probe:
Ann Druyan was engaged to marry Timothy Ferriss while they were working on the Voyager project with Carl Sagan and his wife, Linda. Then Carl and Ann decided to get married. The news took awhile to reach Linda and Timothy. Or so my intern says. But when Ann Druyan tells the story, that part is missing, like a record that skips.
You can play this kind of free-associative game throughout the book, finding paragraphs that link up to others via theme or content or even just pronoun. You feel like a child connecting dots, and it is hard not to be pleased by the intricacies of the resulting spiderweb. I found myself particularly interested by the way the speaker, as she goes through her crisis, gets more and more dissociated from what she's writing. At the beginning of "Dept. of Speculation" she's writing in the first person; halfway through, she's started writing in a dissociated third person, and it is a matter of suspense whether the "I" will come back before the book's end.
This intricate structure is a pleasure to experience in the moment, like a very good piece of lace. Some paragraphs feel like epiphanies; others just good jokes. What it doesn't leave behind, however, is the sense of weight you'd like to attach to a novel that, frog-like, manages to hop elegantly from Kafka to Eliot, from Frederick Cook to Russian astronauts. The problem is that it only hops; there are moments when, admiring the way the narrator has of putting things, you want her to linger, tell you more stories.
This broken-up, epigrammatic form has been used by other novelists. Renata Adler is one, and Offill's book bears certain echoes of Adler's "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark," at least thematically, in its record of the frustrations of intelligence in a world that doesn't particularly value intelligence. But Offill's narrator is too playful by half; when she abandons a paragraph and turns to another subject, it feels that it's happened not because she's owned the subject but because she somehow can't bear to stop for a minute. It is often more like a brief note-to-self than unforgettable aphorism.
Still, the book is very beautiful and funny and wise. To read it feels like borrowing the notebooks of a very good friend who is on the verge of becoming a very great writer but who, for reasons beyond her own circumstances, just can't find the time. The only thing you want from her is to stay longer and talk more, so you'll better understand what she's trying to tell you. And drawing such a character is pretty grand, as far as literary achievements go.