MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Some writers start their books with a plan. They outline their stories or they begin already knowing the last scene. We're going to hear about a book that evolved from a very different approach. Novelist Jenny Offill told Publishers Weekly that she wrote pieces of her latest book on index cards, then she shuffled them until they were in an order that she liked. The result was Offill's first novel since 1999. Author Meg Wolitzer has been reading it and she brings us this review.
MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: Jenny Offill's novel "Dept. of Speculation" weighs in at 192 pages soaking wet and has a fair amount of white space, too. That's about as short as it gets without being a pamphlet. But we've come to expect certain things from a novel. Like, you probably wouldn't take this one on an airplane because you know it wouldn't last. So you need to feel that even though you're not going to be in the world of this book for very long, it's worth it to be in it at all.
It's an unusual book in terms of form. It's written as a collection of vignettes, oddities, and quirky details. The young couple in the story are only referred to as the husband and the wife. There are no names. But if all of that stuff sounds scary, be brave. It's an absorbing and highly readable book. It's also beautifully written, sly, and often profound. Still, you have to have the patience for the piecemeal rollout of the story.
We follow this couple as they navigate the world and their own little terrain, including the most painful moments. At one point the wife tells us, when we signed the lease, we were happy about the jungle gym because I'd just learned that I was pregnant. But by the time we moved in, the baby's heart had stopped, and now it just made us sad to look out the window at it.
It's kind of amazing that a nameless narrator could evoke this kind of sorrowful feeling. Maybe our minds just crave stories so badly that we'll fill in the details out of whatever raw material is put in front of us. Of course, the danger of writing a book like this is that all the little sections will inevitably be competing with one another other, and some do work better than others. A questionnaire about sparrows just after the wife loses her baby had me thinking, give me back my couple.
But there were other times that I was more willing to be taken far afield, like a story about the scientist Carl Sagan's infidelity because, in fact, infidelity does come into play here. The husband strays and the ensuing drama has a held-breath suspense to it.
And the novel is often really funny. Offill refers to the Internet meme of the cat saying, I can has cheezburger? And the payoff comes later, after men are flirting with the wife, who muses to herself, I can has boyfriend? Offill seems to have set up a challenge for herself - write only what needs to be written, and nothing more. No excess, no flab. And through these often disparate and disconnected means, tell the story of the fragile nature of anyone's domestic life.
SIEGEL: The book is "Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill. It was reviewed by Meg Wolitzer.