On Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation
Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem’s 2013 lament of the death of American communism, did its best to de-convert me. For the first two-thirds, I suffered through erudite slang of the guiltiest sort, Pynchonesque runs of Brooklynisms and Jewish jargon, desperate for a reason to care. For it wasn’t that the stakes of the Zimmer family weren’t high, or that their familial fireworks were lacking. I wanted to see what sort of partner Miriam, Rose’s firebrand daughter, would end up with. I wanted to attempt to follow whatever line of antiestablishment rhetoric Cicero pursued next, just as I wanted to find out whether (and if so, how) terminally lonely Rose would end up terminally alone. No: the problem was that this core of feeling was buried, muted by Lethem’s layers of communist argument and New York filth. For a long time—the first two-thirds of the book, in fact—I knew that there was a case being stated, a point being made. Until then, though, I didn’t have a reason to listen—and so I didn’t. I slogged.
But on page 255, as the book’s second act is drawing to its close, there’s this: “The whole century had vacated Sunnyside Gardens, quit darkening her door. Yet had it learned anything in the process?” In a pair of sentences, a single paragraph, Lethem has at last asserted the purpose of his work. There is no hope for his characters, no miraculous grace. There is only history, and history has placed them firmly in the past. If there is to be a gesture toward hope, it must be small. This is a eulogy, not a recommendation.
The second paragraph of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, by contrast, reads thus:
It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of all of it.
From the beginning, we know what this story is about: Two people loved, and then one day, one of them didn’t. And the other, the speaker, still did. And so she had to work to convince herself no longer to. And so she did—she worked. She looped the same stories to herself, waiting for the moment where the recording decayed beyond sentiment. But the vinyl didn’t break down, the grooves didn’t wear—or at least not to the point where her memories were no longer remembered. The words we are reading, we understand: this is what remains.
That Offill’s subject is so familiar—who hasn’t been fallen out of love with?—is the reason she is able to get to the heart of the matter as swiftly as she does. This is obvious, although it took me until I read Weather, Offil’s most recent novel, to realize as much. Her circumstances are intimately familiar, and hence the minimal amount of scene-setting she needs to do. Who has not feared for the future (even if not to the same extent) as does Weather’s narrator? Who hasn’t yearned with a fatalism equivalent to that of the narrator of Dept. of Speculation? The point is so ubiquitous as to not need stating—and so she doesn’t waste our time. She gets to it, then guides us past it. With all possible haste.
Last week, I said about all I have to say about Offill’s ability to distill meaning via minimalism. I will, therefore, refrain from saying more here. Perhaps there remains space on my bookshelf for Lethem’s tactile urbanism (and I will, admittedly, be reading Chronic City soon, if only for proof of my initial opinion), but I find myself increasingly bored by traditional narration of this sort. Paging through my copy of Dept. of Speculation, one comes across starred and underlined and bracketed passages at least once every two pages. “The weather is theater here,” she writes, in what must be the best first sentence of a chapter, ever. “Out of dark waters, this,” she writes, in what must be the finest last. Not once in Dissident Gardens, by comparison, did I deign to raise a pen. Is this a condemnation? Perhaps. There are such things as taste and the test of time. But I know whose work I prefer.