What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014)

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (London: Granta Publications, 2014), 177 pp.

Subject matter – A fraught novella about infidelity. The wife/mother who narrates the novella is a creative writing tutor, the husband/father is a sound archivist; other characters include a philosopher and an almost-astronaut, and all four of these roles feed into the rich themes of the text. The story arc moves from married bliss, to the rupture caused by an unexpected adultery, and ultimately towards an uneasy resolution – compromised, saddened by wisdom, and authentic to the realities of adulthood.

Structure/Style – 46 chapters, each consisting of a haphazard collage of fragments, sequenced through free-wheeling free association and jarring juxtapositions. The narrator leaps from thought to thought, letting loose a torrent of observations, incidents, quotations, aphorisms and facts. Some of the fragments have the compressed narrative arc of micro-fictions, offering urgent present-tense reports to describe the characters’ actions; others are simply single-sentence quotations from philosophy and literature, or information from science and astronomy. Sometimes the material flows in a continuous narrative stream; more often, Offill places disparate material side by side, sparking it like tinder and flint. A devastating implication about infidelity might be followed by a quotation from Yeats. Initially the novella moves briskly through incidents as the narrator’s daughter ages rapidly, then as the plot rises towards its crisis, the story slows down to linger over narrative details.

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) “Stream of Fragments” – A classic novel-/novella-in-flash might more obviously be a sequence of self-standing stories, but it’s becoming increasingly popular to publish mainstream novels like this one, where the writing is a patchwork of fragmented paragraphs, sometimes as short as one sentence long. We might categorise this as the “novella-in-fragments” form. In Dept. of Speculation, where extra meanings are sparked by laying different types of content side by side, the rapidly changing subject matter is suggestive of a disorganised life teetering out of control. It’s worth comparing Offill’s novella to Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever? (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2001), a book which is more regularly categorised as a bona fide novel-in-flash. Actually, in terms of the style of the content – fragments, microfictions, almost-aphorisms, and the feeling of a chaotic life represented on the page – the two books have a lot in common. But Offill’s book is marginally less scattergun and doesn’t use numerical separators between fragments, so it reads more like a fluid and continuous stream of material.

Invitation: Consider how titles, numerical separators, and also page breaks (or the absence of page breaks), affect the reader’s experience of your material. Dept. of Speculation offers a more “continuous” vision of the “novella-in-fragments”. Could you use “fragments” in your own novella, and if so in what way?

(2) Point of View Shift – This is another novella that uses Point of View in an innovative way. Initially it is written in the first person, and addressed to a “you” – it is confided to the imagined audience of the husband. Then the “you” becomes “my husband” in chapter 9, a small, third-person distancing device. Exactly half-way in terms of chapters (Ch 23 out of 46), the entire story shifts into the third person, with the narrator talking about herself as “the wife”. It is as if the action has become a fable that she’s narrating. Increasingly we are aware of the story as a text the narrator (as a creative writing professor) is exploring, including, in chapter 32, the critical feedback she would give herself about her storytelling. We become vividly aware that the narrator may be selectively cherry-picking narrative details – is her testimony an objective record? It’s a clever shift. Only in the final chapter does the first-person “I” narrator return – as though, in the main, she couldn’t face talking about infidelity in the first person.

Invitation: Although it may be problematic to apply Offill’s point of view innovations directly to our own story situations, Dept. of Speculation does prove that point of view can be played with in unusual ways. If you find an interesting innovation or shift in this respect, and it fits well, it might enrich your material.  How might you experiment playfully with point of view as you produce your novella?

(3) Thematic Richness – This is a novella in which the characters’ “work identities” have a huge influence on the text. This holds true for the two main characters – the wife (a creative writing professor) and the husband (a sound archivist) but also the two most significant secondary characters – a philosopher and a man who didn’t quite manage to be an astronaut, who is writing a book about space travel. All four work identities influence the fragments of material that the narrator chooses to include – she throws in facts about sound, about philosophy and about space travel, and there are frequent quotations from literature, philosophy and science. We only really know these other characters through the narrator, especially as there are very few scenes of direct dialogue in the novella. It feels like everything is being mediated through the female narrator, and the narrator has absorbed these other characters’ worldviews and their subject interests, and then the text of the novella is embodying them as a result. The book becomes, to some extent, a tapestry of facts and quotations. Although the narrative of infidelity is itself relatively simple, it feels like Offill is tapping into a deep wisdom about the world, wrapping layers of profoundly enriched context around the basic story.

Invitation: Following Offill’s lead, consider your characters’ “work identities” in particular (NB this may not be formal paid work – this may be as a parent or relative, student, volunteer, carer etc). How might the details and complications of their relationship to “work” (or “responsibilities”, if you prefer) influence the rich, meaningful tapestry of your novella, in terms of the different worldviews we encounter?

Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/