Jenny Offill's novel Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, $22.95) reads in some ways as a companion piece to last year's Kevin Sampsell novel This Is Between Us. While Sampsell told the story of a marriage through a man's perspective, Offill takes a woman's side. Of the two, Speculation is the better book, a jagged little valentine that fits in the palm of your hand and stares at you, accusingly.
Speculation's narrator, who refers to herself as "the wife," can't seem to be a willing participant in her marriage, because she's too busy observing everything to understand that her husband is slowly slipping away. She writes about her relationship with the distance and the condescension of a slightly disappointed zoologist. A writer in her free time, the wife comes up with ideas for "really American" fortune cookies:
Objects create happiness.
The animals are pleased to be of use.
Your cities will shine forever.
Death will not touch you.
She ghostwrites a book for a former astronaut, and all the trivia about space travel buzzes about her brain. She feels distant from her life, watching everything from a solar system away. The book is broken up into trivia-sized chunks of text, in which our narrator slowly and impassively notices her husband's decaying orbit.
She observes how other people behave in couples; her agent says, "Every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string." She realizes that "the reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out." She slowly falls apart, living the cliché of the abandoned wife and hating every moment of the ordinariness of it all. This is not a romantic book, but it ably measures the distance of a marriage, and in the end offers a map to traverse the dangerous path from one heart to the other.