READERS GUIDEThe questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, a startlingly incisive, sharply funny, beautifully written examination of marriage, motherhood, and fulfillment.
Introduction“Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation resembles no book I’ve read before. If I tell you that it’s funny, and moving, and true; that it’s as compact and mysterious as a neutron; that it tells a profound story of love and parenthood while invoking (among others) Keats, Kafka, Einstein, Russian cosmonauts, and advice for the housewife of 1896, will you please simply believe me, and read it?” —Michael Cunningham
Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.
Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes—a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.
With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation can be read in a single sitting, but there are enough bracing emotional insights in these pages to fill a much longer novel.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. This novel is written in a fragmentary, elliptical style. Why do you think it is structured this way?
2. How would the story change if it were told in a more straightforward fashion?
3. The epigraph for the novel is a quote from Socrates: “Speculators on the universe are . . . no better than madmen.” Where else in the book does the narrator talk about madness?
4. Is this a book about loneliness?
5. Have you ever known an art monster? Have you ever been one?
6. On pages 43 and 44, the narrator includes a “Personality Questionnaire.” What phobias or fears would you include if you wrote your own?
7. The narrator says, “I would give it up for her . . . but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she was eighteen.” What do you make of this passage?
8. What does it mean to throw off ambition “like an expensive coat that no longer fits?”
9. When the narrator’s sister tells her, “You have a kid-glove marriage” (page 81), does the narrator agree?
10. Why does the POV change midway through the book? Why does she become “the wife” and he, “the husband”?
11. What reaction did you have to the soscaredsoscaredsoscaredsoscaredsoscared chapter?
12. If someone asked you, “When were you the happiest?” what would you say? Would you say the same thing no matter who asked you?
13. The narrator says at one point, “The truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” Does this seem true to you?
14. Why does the narrator want to meet the girl? Why is this section framed as if it is a student paper she is grading?
15. The wife says “(So ask the birds at least. Ask the fucking birds.)” Who is she speaking to? Why is this placed in parentheses as if it is an offhand comment?
16. Chapter 46—the last chapter in the novel—switches the point of view of first person plural, “We.” Why do you think this change is made?
17. Is this a happy ending? Do you want it to be?
18. Discuss what matters most to you.