Not the way she planned it
NEW Yorker regular Bruce Eric Kaplan has a sad-funny cartoon in which a little girl asks a little boy, as they walk down the street after a children’s party, “How did I become someone who has a screaming fit about a stupid gift bag filled with little plastic things?”
The sad part is the implication that as we grow up our personalities and our lives are things that happen to us, rather than things we map out and enact; we just mark milestones and accept circumstances.
The funny part, which is actually also a sad part, is the absurdity and silliness in which our lives can end up, unplanned, unchecked and often unrealised, but just as real and significant as the other parts, the things we do on purpose, the good and brave parts of our lives. Getting from childhood to adulthood means changing in ways that are out of our control. In our private selves, we have all our desires and ideas about what kind of people we should really be.
American author Jenny Offill has written a wonderful book about the private self, the secret self, and the struggle to make the outward person match up with all the ambition, intelligence and goodwill inside when you’re at war with the circumstances of your life.
A woman, a novelist who has published one book and is now working as a writing teacher and a ghostwriter to a ‘‘rich man’’, is married to her ‘‘famously kind’’ husband and has one daughter. She narrates a story told in fragmented scraps that alternate between the life of the married couple and intrusions such as scientific facts, anecdotes, poems and proverbs.
‘‘The wife’’ hadn’t planned on a domestic life. She planned on being an ‘‘art monster’’, on dedicating her life to the work of writing books. ‘‘Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits’’, but she has more trouble. This is what the wife wants to write on the family’s Christmas cards instead of the usual greetings: Dear Family and Friends, It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the Pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.
When asked if he likes his new job scoring soundtracks for commercials, the husband replies ‘‘not bad’’ with a shrug ‘‘only vaguely soul-crushing’’.’ A young man, ‘‘pure of heart’’ comes over for dinner. He is ‘‘alert to any sign of compromise or dead-ending’’. When he leaves, someone says ‘‘You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.’’
Married life becomes as desperate and fatuous as an Antarctic expedition, conveyed through quotes from explorers’ diaries. The wife Department of Speculation By Jenny Offill Granta, 192pp, $24.99 (HB) struggles with life after having the child. She seems unable to write the second book that everyone expects of her, and then the husband has an affair with a much younger woman.
In a heartbreaking scene in which a normal woman turns into a cliche of what she actually is, the narrator confronts her husband’s mistress in the street, screaming and jealous. The sadness is in the awareness of the caricature she has become: She would not have let one of her students write the scene this way … She’d cut the implausible handshake and point out how stilted the dialogue is. (You have caused my family great pain. I don’t want to be an abstraction to you anymore.) … How she feels something she’s never felt before surge through her body, how she stands on a corner in Midtown one afternoon, kicking a newspaper machine, screaming, “You f. ked a child! She’s a f. king child! Tell her to come out here!” This is very emotionally charged, she’d write next to the moment when the husband calls the girl and softly tries to convince her. Softly saying, just come, please, so tender her voice, so sorry to cause the girl pain, and all because of the scene his crazy wife is making, his wife yelling in the background. Yelling and yelling … People avert their eyes as they pass.
Here are all the ways in which, despite everything we have and do, we become ridiculous: the wife has lunch with a friend who ‘‘orders things I’ve never heard of, sends back a piece of middling fish. I tell her various schemes to redeem my life.’’
It would be easy, reading Department of Speculation, to feel that no matter what we do, we’re powerless to the ridicules, that we’re trapped by our children, spouses, jobs and choices we made with the best intentions. But that would mean forgetting what you’re reading.
The book, scary and well-written, is an affirmation, a triumph: it’s the second novel. It’s compact and coherent and gives dignity to the ridicule and absurdity, in the elegant way that writing renders the experience.
Its achievement is to make sense of the way that life ends up, not as it was planned but as it must be lived all the same. In that, it’s like beautiful recitation from The Tibetan Book of the Dead — death being the coherent force that makes an organised story of every life: ‘‘O nobly born … in your journey through the formless void, remember the unity of all living things.’’
American author Jenny Offill’s second novel makes sense of the way that life ends up