In Dept. of Speculation (2014), Jenny Offill’s second novel, the writer-narrator is distracted from writing a second novel by motherhood and the revelation of her husband’s affair, but also by a bedbug infestation and a job ghostwriting a history of the space programme for a failed astronaut. In Last Things (1999), Offill’s debut, eight-year-old Grace, homeschooled by her increasingly erratic mother, learns mainly about the formation of the universe and the insects that will remain after mammalian extinction. The very large and the very small, along with philosophy and history, poetry and religion, recontextualise — for Offill’s characters and for her readers — the ordinary and not so ordinary events of domestic life. Dept. of Speculation consists of fragments, most of them well under half a page, that relate the narrator’s trajectory from unattached young woman to wife and mother; interspersed with these are tenets of Buddhism and Manichaeism, self-help jargon and quotations from Rilke, Simone Weil, Hesiod and Antarctic explorers.
Offill began writing Last Things shortly out of college, while on a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and it was published eight years later. Since then, she has taught writing at universities in New York and North Carolina, and in September she will take up a post as a visiting writer at Vassar College. She is the author of four children’s books and co-editor, with Elissa Schappell, of two essay anthologies, one on money and another on female friendships. Dept. of Speculation — shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Pen/Faulkner Award and the L.A. Times Fiction Award — was praised widely for the originality of its form and compared to works published around the same time by Elena Ferrante, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk, for its seeming autofictionality and its preoccupation with the difficulty of combining early motherhood, or any intimate relationship, with creative work. ‘My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead […] art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things,’ the narrator remembers, once she is married and deeply concerned with mundane things.
Offill is now working on her third novel, Weather. Its librarian protagonist, having taken a job at a podcast called Hell and High Water, finds her sphere of concern, previously restricted to caring for unstable family members, widening to include climate change and global politics. I interviewed Offill, who lives in upstate New York, in a narrow French restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was late February, one week after the Parkland school shooting and the day that Trump was meeting survivors in Washington D.C. The topic of climate change came up almost immediately: the temperature was in the early twenties, unnervingly warm after weeks of below zero. (I later discovered that it was the warmest February day on record.) After the interview we walked through a busy Central Park. Offill was totally engaging, at once serious and very funny, with the same black humour evident in her novels. Over several kinds of cheese, we began by discussing our different experiences teaching, and the usefulness — or otherwise — of having mentors or peers read writing-in-progress.
New York, February 2018