As we sustain our time of reflection and staying home, I’m continuing to offer authors I enjoy. This week I’m focusing on Jenny Offill. Her writing is a complete 180 from the author I wrote about last week, Billy O’Callaghan. Whereas Billy is a man of long, lyrical, poetic sentences and paragraphs, Jenny is sparse and highly selective in her word choices. However, both create a richness of language.
I was introduced to the work of Jenny Offill at Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, last summer. She was a leader of a fiction workshop. Throughout the week, the leaders and local writers participated in panels and shared their work. After I heard Jenny read, I wished I could’ve taken hers and the non-fiction track I was on. When I arrived back in the US, I went straight to Maine for another writing program. I stopped by my favorite small bookstore Hello, Hello Books in Rockland, and immediately found a secondhand copy of her novel Dept. of Speculation. It was fate. Her most recent novel Weather, I found at Book House in Albany, NY. Then I had a chance to see her read at the Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga, NY, at the end of February. I’m lucky since the event came in just before everything was canceled.
“General Notes: If the wife becomes unwived, what should she be called? Will the story have to be rewritten? There is a time between being a wife and being a divorcee, but no good word for it. Maybe say what a politician might say. Stateless person. Yes, stateless.”
Dept. of Speculation is about a woman who is looking over her marriage that is falling apart. Her time with a colicky baby, struggling with bed bugs, infidelity, the changes, and dissolving of a relationship and life as she knows it—the feeling of being stalled in one’s own existence. The sparse writing is quick yet satiating at the same time. To look at the white space on the page, it might seem as if the story couldn’t hold weight or punch, but in fact, it’s the opposite. The paragraphs flow even though there are elements that don’t always seem connected at first. It’s almost as if you’re looking at a pointillism, a painting or illustration made of dots. Up close, it appears as if there is too much space around each point, but step back, and it blends to create a lovely and sensual image.
“That drug dealer who lives in 5C always surprises me. He’s big and sleepy-eyed, but his reflexes are lightning quick. Today a grocery bag I was carrying broke, and he caught the glass bottle of oil before it hit. He has a baby girl who doesn’t live with him, a beautiful dog, and a small jagged scar on his neck. Once I asked if he grew up in the neighborhood, and he smiled and shook his head. I just bounced around as a kid, he told me. A little bit here, a little bit there.”
This style continues into Weather. Which seems shockingly poignant at the moment. The main character is a self-appointed therapist to those around her, including her brother, who struggles with addiction. Along with balancing her family, her brother, her job, there is this constant element of climate change and advice for being a prepper. If it were to all fall apart for reals, I know how to use a can of tuna as light. The same style used in Dept. of Speculation is also used here, and it works so beautifully. At the end of the book, there’s a link to a website that Jenny created with all the factoids that didn’t make it into the book.
In both books, Jenny achieves thoughtful and vibrant stories and character development with no extraneous moments or words. A bit I love about these books is that it shows word count isn’t everything. Quality, selectivity, and time committed to the work makes all the difference. Each book flies while you’re reading it. Not only because they both glide along, but you find yourself turning each page without realizing it. You could easily read each one in a night but will want to reread them.
Jenny has more books than I mentioned here. She has several children’s books, which sounds hysterical and will be on my standard baby shopping list from now on, and her first novel Last Things, which I’m looking forward to reading.
I love promoting local bookstores. With our recent events, they are suffering alongside so many of our small businesses. Please click on the links to the bookstores mentioned above and consider supporting them. Or please go online to your favorite local bookstore or any business. Many are offering to ship, provide curbside pickup, or gift cards to be used at a later point. Two of my favorite cousins are both struggling with COVID-19 as I write this. One is on a ventilator. I wanted to do something for them as they rest and recover so I ordered some books through Hello, Hello in Maine to be sent to my cousins in Virginia. Please support each other if you are able. I have several books and author reviews throughout my blog if you’re looking for some new ideas. Scroll through there or ask me. I’m happy to talk about books anytime. Let’s support and care for each other as best we can. Thank you.