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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

How to write a good novel with a profusion of trite one-liners

"The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact.)"

There's something inherently suspicious about the aphorism as a form of literature (or communication of any sort, really); if only because in real life it so easily moves into the realm of platitude.

But what is on its own trite, simplistic, generally intolerable, can be used to great effect as part of something bigger and more meaningful. And Jenny Offill's Dept. Of Speculation, a novel told through a series of short paragraphs, aphorisms, lists, believe-it-or-not facts and quotes, does just this.

"My plan was never to get married," says the unnamed narrator of Offill's book. "I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things." She writes a book, but does not become an art monster; she marries a husband who will not suborn himself to her art ("Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him."), has a daughter, teaches in a university. An old acquaintance asks her why she never wrote a second book: "Did something happen?" "Yes," she says.

Told in two parts, in the first and third person respectively, Dept. of Speculation tells first of the building of a life different to the one its author had planned for herself, then of the breakdown and subsequent, tentative rebuilding of that life. Of her love for her husband, who is built up in the first section of the book as perfect; kind and loving and generous in ways that are ominous to a reader who knows that it cannot last. Of her child, who is exhausting ("Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I'd say"). I spoke above of the trite, the overused. There's nothing surprising about the characters in Dept. of Speculation; the wife and mother with her artistic dreams frustrated, the husband whose midlife crisis manifests as an affair with a younger woman, the child who is the focus of intense love. It's the very normalcy of these emotions that Offill often deploys in their favour. Of her daughter: "There is a picture of my mother holding me as a baby, a look of naked love on her face. For years, it embarrassed me. Now there is a picture of me with my daughter looking exactly the same way." We're reminded that all marriages are fragile, "held together with chewing gum and wire and string". Ovid is quoted on the subject of infidelity to remind us that this story is as old as time. None of the principal actors in this tragedy are named; they could be anyone.

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Dept. of Speculation spirals in and outward between the very individual and the cosmic. A recurring motif is that of Carl Sagan and his “cosmic” love story ; a love story that also included the mundanity of cheating on his wife.

nd yet we're never allowed to think of them as fitting into an obvious, therefore dismissible narrative. "I am not a cartoon wife," insists the wife. She's not. Dept. of Speculation spirals in and outward between the very individual and the cosmic. A recurring motif is that of Carl Sagan and his "cosmic" love story ("because who can resist the urge to say silly things about Carl Sagan?"); a love story that also included the mundanity of cheating on his wife. And here, when the wife finds out about her husband's infidelity the universe itself is thrown off balance.

It works in part because it's so pared down. The novel is stripped of everything that is dispensable. You could make a case for it as poetry.

Earlier in the book the narrator sees in passing a vision of some disaster that sweeps the world, something "distant and imperfectly understood" that threatens everything that is good and vulnerable. "I won't be happy until I know the name of this thing," she says, and we never do find out its name but we know by the end what it is. It's an unhappiness that stalks all happiness, a brokenness that is built into every love. It's "how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never f***ing outrun entropy."It's a hopeless love, a tired love, a doomed love.

 
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