I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation because of this extended quote from the New York Times Book Review:
In recent years, a number of talented novelists have experienced a sudden and alarming loss of faith in their chosen literary form. David Shields thinks most novels are boring and disconnected from reality. Nicole Krauss is “sick of plot and characters and scenes and climax and resolution.” Rachel Cusk has decided that conventional fiction is “fake and embarrassing.” Karl Ove Knausgaard goes even further, dismissing the entire enterprise: “Fictional writing has no value.”
This distaste for the clunky machinery of traditional narrative fiction has spread quickly. Some of the most interesting “novels” of the past few years — Teju Cole’s “Open City,” Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation, Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” not to mention Knausgaard’s epic, “My Struggle” — are barely novels at all. They read more like memoirs, or a series of lightly fictionalized journal entries, recounting the mundane lives and off-kilter ruminations of their first-person narrators, who are either postgraduate students or blocked writers.
I happen to be of the opinion that novels with plot, characters, scenes, climaxes and resolution still have a place in novels, and that fiction writing continues to have great value.
Regardless, the quotes above ignore the history of the novel, which is amazingly plastic in form. The novel is almost anything we want it to be, and writers in the past have certainly done revolutionary things with the genre. Haven’t any of the writer’s above read Stein’s The Making of Americans or Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Or even skimmed them? Literary modernism was all about taking the novel in startling new directions.
I picked Dept. of Speculation to see this “new” style in action. This is a very accomplished book. Offill chronicles a disintegrating marriage in a series of terse, sparse vignettes. She writes well, filling the novel with a queasy sense of suspension, almost of the mystery or horror genre, even though this is a novel of adultery, which was once, incidentally, a great theme, the great theme, in novel writing.
So, Dept of Speculation is a compelling read, but certainly nothing extraordinarily new is done here. The novel has a seemingly limitless capacity to be anything we want it to be. This book is a novel. We need to know the history of what we write.