Dept. of Speculation is an odd, short novel, and yet it lingers with you once you’ve finished, giving you food for thought both as to the structure of the book and the narrative of a life.
The book takes the form of the stream-of-consciousness musings of a woman–known only as “the wife”–looking back at her life in light of her marriage. When they were dating, she and her husband sent letters to each other addressed “Dept. of Speculation” in a cute reference to sharing a vision for their future together. Of course, the title is quite loaded as we come to see. Speculation can mean shared dreams, or it can mean a desperate and perhaps ill-conceived gamble with long odds. Speculation, like marriage, is entered into with high hopes and high stakes and is a risky business–the investor is exposed deeply and may either find unimaginable riches or crushing loss.
Or, perhaps, both.
The structure–reading only the narrator/wife’s thoughts–at first seems light. But as you read you find out that she is a deeply literary teacher whose very way of seeing and processing her life is accomplished through the lens of what she has read and taken to heart from the great thinkers, writers, and philosophers she has studied. Cultural trivia (Germans have a word for gaining weight when you are depressed after losing a loved one: kummerspeck–literally, “grief bacon”), factoids about the space race, and quotes from Martin Luther and Kafka weave in with the wife’s own realizations about what goes into crafting a life with another person.
Although I can’t say I agree with all of the narrator/wife’s conclusions I found the whole book striking, and more so as I considered it after the fact. The close, close point of view gives the story tremendous emotional heft without the usual length or detail required to achieve that height of feeling. Much of the nuance and imagery rings true, even if you are not quite in the same spot philosophically as the narrator.
All in all, Dept. of Speculation is a worthwhile read if you enjoy literary construction or unusual ways of telling stories.
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