A Small, Good Thing: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation


Welcome to a new series we’re calling A Small, Good Thing, which is a reference to the Raymond Carver story and NOT Martha Stewart’s “Good Things.” Anything can be a small, good thing: a song, a sentence in a short story, a scene from a movie, a particular episode of a television show, a side dish at a restaurant—so long as it’s worth celebrating.

Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, is one of those books that you mean to read casually and end up reading intently, blowing off obligations and eating and sleeping to finish. It’s a novel that tells a story in fragments, a familiar one about the limits of time and energy running up against ambition, relationships, having children, the slow breakdown of a relationships. Offill’s prose style is mesemerizing and meted out in slow, careful bites, and the whole book is something like a poem: Finished quickly, weighted cleverly, and made to linger in your head long after you close the book.

There are many, many small good things in this book. It is a book practically made of them. There is a line about the narrator’s courtship with her husband that is tiny and beautiful and dazzling: “I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.”

But there’s one quote that I read over and over, one of those small passages that captures something that you’ve been trying to explain forever and never quite been able to convey. In it, the narrator is talking about her husband making home repairs:

My husband comes into the bathroom, holding a hammer. He is talking, reciting a litany of household things. “I fixed the wobbly chair,” he tells me. “And I put a mat under the rug so it won’t ride up again. The toilet needs a new washer though. It won’t stop running.” This is another way in which he is an admirable person. If he notices something is broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.

And that, there is something perfect about it. The unceasing changes of life are a blessing, they move us farther along from the hardest parts of our lives, they allow us to move on. But it is sometimes necessary to acknowledge just how exhausting everything is. You will always have to buy more paper towels, get new groceries, walk the dog. Your life is an ongoing process of cleaning laundry and emptying the trash and managing the banal crises of everyday.  There are always more phone calls to make and more fires to put out. There is never a stop to it. And it can feel so crushing, to know that all your efforts are temporary, momentarily staving off the next way. We are all Sisyphus, pushing the stone up the mountain for it to slide down again.  You can never fucking outrun entropy.

Not long ago, I was mediating a misunderstanding between two friends. The first had been complaining and joking about minor career setbacks, the trash piling up from roommates, the odd beast that is New York City. The second sent a letter of concern, asking very seriously if the person was happy, a query that gave the first friend offense. And I understood: Friend A was going through the necessary process of airing grevances before getting on with it. Friend B responded with a practical assessment. It was as they were trying to communicate in two different languages. I know this. I am the kind of person who sometimes has to complain about something before I fix it, even if the solution is already there, the necessary steps to progress clearly evident. It seems important to me to sometimes stop and acknowledge this, the entropy. That every day is a battle with forces outside of your power. That half-submitting to this chaos is the only way to handle it, but it comes with doubts and consequences, small hedges against it.

It reminds me of that perennial argument that I had with my mother, that thousands of children must have had, running something along the lines of: “Why make the bed when it’s just going to get messed up again?” At the time, my mother, tight-lipped, answered something along the lines of “Because I said so.” But it is only now that I understand why you make the bed. Why you buy paper towels. Why you vaccuum even though you’ll need to vaccuum again in two days. It is not just about cleanliness or order or the need to sop up spills, it is about the entropy. It is about acknowledging that some small things are in your control, but the vast number of things are not. It is about summoning the small amount of courage required to face every day, to step back out into the world and accept whatever comes your way.

Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here