Shelf LifeShelf LifeA monthly books column that considers works of fiction and nonfiction that speak past their publication dates—because good books don’t go bad.

If you only know two sentences from Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, they are these: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.” These lines are quoted in Tumblr posts and Twitter bios, in a few nuanced essays like this one and dozens of dull manifestos. They’re cited in a Bustle listicle, if incorrectly: the art monster enters on the sixth page of Offill’s novel, not the first. On the first page of Dept. of Speculation, you’ll find the following: “Antelopes have 10x vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.” Which is just as fascinating, frankly, but hasn’t spurred a hundred wan thinkpieces.

The dichotomy proposed by those two sentences—marriage vs. monstrosity, wife vs. artist—sounds throughout the novel’s beginning, as the unnamed narrator rushes through her early adulthood in a few swift pages. “For years, I kept a Post-it note above my desk,” she tells us. “WORK NOT LOVE! was what it said. It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.” And work she does: she finishes her first book at 29 and has it published. “I went to a party and drank myself sick,” reads the whole of the following section—how glamorous, the life of the art monster.

Dept. of Speculation is composed of 46 short chapters; the narrator meets her future husband in the fourth. She marries him in the fifth, miscarries in the sixth, and has a baby in the seventh. We are plunged into the circumscribed world of a family with all the headlong exhilaration of a dive into icy waters. (It takes courage; it takes foolishness; why do we do such things?) The husband is unnamed, addressed by the narrator only as “you,” the most intimate of pronouns. “That year I didn’t travel alone,” she says, of their first year of courtship. “I’ll meet you there, you said.” There are times when I feel an unbearable sweetness upon reading these lines, and there are times when I feel a gut-clenching fear. I love traveling alone, I think.

“You” is intimacy; it is also an address. The book takes its title from letters the characters once wrote to each other, now kept in boxes on their desks. “The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation,” Offill writes, and it’s easy to read her novel, narrated as it is, as epistolary. A letter to a lover might explain, apologize, gush, cajole, plead, obfuscate, describe, or accuse. A novel might do the same. Even as it drifts through anecdotes and tangents, its narrative interspersed with facts about space travel and philosophers’ thoughts on the soul, the central conversation—between people instead of pages, to paraphrase Frank O’Hara—holds steady. Dept. of Speculation is an urgency, a letter pressed from hand to hand.

The marriage that ruins the plan—to never get married, to be an art monster—is both subject and spur of the words before us. If we are going to blame love when it gets in the way of making art, we must also give it credit. “Did something happen?” an acquaintance asks the narrator, gently, when he learns she hasn’t published a second book in the years since they last saw each other. “Yes,” is the totality of her reply. Yes, something happened, and maybe it is the reason for no book and maybe it is the reason for the book we hold in our hands. And, I’m saying, not or. The dichotomy presented in those early pages—marriage versus monstrosity—is dismantled by the end, again and again. “Women almost never become art monsters,” reads the sentence that follows its better-known neighbors, “because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” But what else is this book—is most art—made of, if not such mundane things? Sparrows and playgrounds and bedbugs and bedtimes—mundane and miraculous, all of it. The novel is composed in short fragments—some a few paragraphs, some just a sentence—the bits and bobs that make a life. They are mundane things; they are art; there is no contradiction.

The dichotomy is false. I thought of Offill’s novel while reading Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, a work of nonfiction about the lives of Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and other literary women of the modernist period, each the wife of a more famous husband. Zambreno is concerned with the figure of “the wife,” overshadowed and undermined, diminished from a creator with intelligence and ambition of her own to a character in her husband’s work, and a secondary one at that. Zambreno herself is married, makes art; bits of memoir poke through her biographical accounts of the other women, the other wives, spiking the easy argument—wife versus artist—with a few welcome complications.

In Dept. of Speculation, the specter of “the wife” rises halfway through the novel, as the book’s perspective alters without warning. The narrator—who has gradually stopped speaking to her husband as “you”—begins to refer to him as “the husband,” to herself as “the wife.” They have become characters in their own story, reduced to ancient clichés by an equally ancient precipitating event: the husband has slept with a younger woman (referred to as “the girl”). “You’ve made me into a cartoon wife,” the wife tells him, the words framed by quotation marks and a dialogue tag. The intimate, epistolary narrative fractures; the wife is severed not only from her husband—the distance between them summed in the shift from second person to third—but from herself. She is no longer “I.”

The first-person voice might be lost, but it takes with it none of the brilliance, the sharpness, or even the humor of the book’s first half. Dept. of Speculation is deliriously funny, not only in its one-liners but in the giddy pace of its compact form: how absurd life is, flinging us from mundanity to devastation in the same day, the same instant. This humor was lost on some early reviewers: writing for the New York Times, Roxane Gay puzzles over the narrator’s invocation of Buddhist wisdom to contextualize her misery. “There is gravity to the mere idea of Buddhism,” Gay writes. “We’re supposed to do something with this information, right?” Well, sure. Buddhism lends gravity, but borrowing the gravity of an ancient religion to prop up your own little miseries is absurd—intentionally so. Meg Wolitzer says, in a review for NPR, “A sudden quote from Simone Weil, ‘Attention without object is a supreme form of prayer,’ seemed a little bewildering.” But the Weil quote follows fast on the heels of a section about the obsessive watchfulness of the bedbug-infested—it’s sudden because it’s a punchline.

These misreadings are minor, but they point to a larger confusion. Both reviewers read some degree of randomness into Offill’s fragmented structure, taking the white space around the quotes about Buddhism and attention as an invitation to read them in isolation. But Offill’s sections function precisely in relation to the ones before and after: the juxtaposition makes the joke (and, elsewhere, the devastation). The narrative is as meticulous and intentional as the seamlessly plotted scenes of more traditional novels. The passage about the art monster, for example, is framed on either side by sections that reference a grandiose claim of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “If I do not greatly delude myself, I have not only completely extricated the notions of time, and space…” Here is your great artist, druggy and ridiculous—in an interview, Offill has referred to the art monster as a “joke.”

And isn’t he? Who wouldn’t fold his own umbrella? Who wouldn’t lick his own stamps, for crying out loud?

In the second half of the book, her own art monster ideations (perhaps) behind her, the narrator—excuse me, the wife—grapples with her husband’s infidelity and the churning, consuming question of what, exactly, they are going to do next: Divorce? Stay? Move away? Move on? Her dissociation shines a secondary light on the gem of Dept. of Speculation, illuminating further depths in its slim pages. “The wife” is reeling, yes, she is hurt and raging and possibly going insane, but she is front and center as she does so; she is not marginalized like Zambreno’s modernists; she is the protagonist and the storyteller and the hero of this story. Why can’t she be “the wife” and all of these, as well?

Perhaps I’m overly concerned with terminology here, having lately agreed to become a wife myself. But the internet’s reflexive adulation of the feminized art monster, and all the readings of Offill’s novel that find their conclusions by the sixth page, seem to miss so much of this remarkable book. The very idea of the art monster, joke or otherwise, is a wearyingly old one, as enticing and as wrong as any myth. The notion that a woman is made monstrous by harnessing her intellect and pursuing her ambition is a story long told—by others, by men. “In myth, woman’s boundaries are pliant, porous, mutable,” writes Anne Carson in a typically stunning essay, “Dirt and Desire,” collected in Men in the Off Hours. “Her power to control them is inadequate, her concern for them unreliable. Deformation attends her. She swells, she shrinks, she leaks, she is penetrated, she suffers metamorphoses. The women of mythology regularly lose their form in monstrosity.”

But women are not myths. The old framework of patriarchy still boards up our world, I know, but to insist on viewing our art through those rotting planks is a surrender we need not make. “Rewriting a woman’s story inevitably means engaging with the male rules that previously defined it,” notes Jia Tolentino in Trick Mirror, and this is what Carson does for the women of the ancient world and Zambreno for her modernists. Such engagement is necessary to provide historical context, to reclaim lesser-known traditions for our own, and to elevate the too-long-submerged work of women of the past. But what about the present? What if I’m interested not in rewriting, but in writing? There is work to do beyond the vogue for reclamation. As Tolentino says, “Women are not always—I’d argue that they’re now rarely—most interesting when breaking uninteresting restrictions.” As in life, so in art: there’s no work I’m less interested in than that of a self-proclaimed art monster. Insisting upon the monstrosity of a female artist, on solitude or selfishness as necessary to creation, doesn’t upend the rules of a male-dominated canon but adheres to them. Art whose valuation depends on the “monstrousness” of its creator buys into the very paradigm that it claims to change.

Don’t get me wrong: I, too, dog-eared the page graced by the art monster. I, too, have idolized the idea of her and emulated those who appear to fit the bill. I have worshipped all the usual dead geniuses, who refused marriage or were wrecked on its rocks, whether because or despite a matter for biographers. I have needed my bad behavior to be justified. (It is not.) I have needed my pain to be worth something. “I had ideas about myself,” the narrator of Dept. of Speculation says of her 20-something experience. “Largely untested.” I, too, have had ideas about myself; I still do. This essay is one of them.

“There is still such crookedness in my heart,” says the narrator, as her daughter grows into early childhood. “I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.” Hinted at throughout the novel, and made explicit in its latter half, is the mental illness that threatens the narrator—a truer and less glamorous breed of monster. “I wanted to cry because I was sure I would never get to be in such a place again,” she says, on a trip to Capri with her not-yet-husband. “I was thinking about what it would be like to live somewhere so beautiful. Would it fix my brain?” But it is not so easy: to fix the brain, to straighten the heart. No place, no person, no professional achievement will do—yet how tempting each can be, in its turn.

I return to the dichotomy’s Post-it note formulation—Work not love!—and the value Offill (or the narrator) applies to such an aspiration: sturdier, she calls it, a sturdier kind of happiness. We speak of marriage and child-rearing as “settling down”—a sturdy phrase if ever there was one, solid and dependable—but how unsteady that ground can be. How risky, to trust so much of your happiness to another, and another. I can think of nothing so unsettling, to a body or a mind, as motherhood. Being an art monster can start to seem, in fact, the easier option—particularly when depressed, when the mundane things (the umbrella-folding, the stamp-licking) grow so difficult as to seem impossible. “The wife has begun planning a secret life,” Offill writes, of a period after the husband’s betrayal. “In it, she is an art monster… She thinks she should go off her meds maybe so as to write more fluidly. Possibly this is not a good idea. / But only possibly.”

The wife goes to visit one of her students, Lia—24, unmarried, still aspiring (I imagine) to art monsterdom—in the hospital. Lia has attempted suicide, speaks gently, and cannot sleep. “I just wait for first light,” she tells the wife. “I watch the window.” Later, after one of the hundred fights that buffet their new, third-person lives, the wife leaves the husband to spend the night at a hotel. “What is she looking for? A gun? A needle?” she thinks, scavenging through the room’s empty drawers. “Dear God, Dear Monster, Dear God, Dear Monster, she prayed that night,” Offill writes, “shaking like a junkie until the slow sun rose again.”

For the second half of the book makes it clear: marriage can be monstrous; it can make monsters of husband and wife alike. No longer “you” and “I” but strangers, unrecognized and feared—by each other, by themselves. The dismantling of the dichotomy works both ways: you needn’t be a monster to do your work, it’s true; you might become a monster nonetheless, with no work to show for it. Monsters are no more or less likely to make art than anyone else, and our obsession with them is precisely that—ours, to be done away with as we’re able.

Or, as Willa Paskin writes in her astute review of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, “The art monster has taken on a life of its own, not as a villain, but as an aspiration. Women, too, should get to be art monsters. But the lesson of the Dept. of Speculation—and scores of literary works about motherhood written by mothers—is that you can make your art without being an art monster.” This lesson is too often missed. In her viral essay for the Paris Review blog, Claire Dederer draws a line—a long one, to be sure, with many fine gradations—between the creative output of accused predators like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and her own literary work. “The critic Walter Benjamin said, ‘At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism,’” Dederer writes. “My own work could hardly be called major, but I do wonder: at the base of every minor work of art, is there a, you know, smaller pile of barbarism? A lump of barbarism? A skosh?”

My copy of Benjamin’s Illuminations offers a different translation: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Monstrosity lies alongside art, that is, not holding it up (at the base). History is written by the victors, Benjamin reminds us, in the essay where this sentence appears, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and the art that survives its era is not exempt from this tendency. The relationship between art and barbarism is correlative, not causative. Benjamin is not talking about the individual artist and her moral failings, major or minor; he is concerned with structural atrocities and the canons that emerge in their wake, with Marx and fascism and historical materialism. He finished “Theses” early in 1940, having returned to Paris after three months in a prison camp. Before the year was out, he had overdosed on morphine tablets, choosing to kill himself rather than risk imprisonment by the Nazis. The artist is hardly the monster here.

Dederer goes on: “There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity… But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness.” Dederer cites the art monster, of course—as goal, as idol, as popular and unquestioned ideal among her friends. “A book is made out of small selfishnesses,” she writes. “The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall.” This is not some brave new truth but the same old paradigm, the same old trap: who says it’s selfish of a woman to shut the door in order to do her work? This isn’t an empty question; it has an answer. You know who.

“The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say,” is the last in Dederer’s litany of so-called selfishnesses. But in my life, writers saying what they have to say has never been selfish, has—over and over—been a gift. I hope this is true for you, too. 124 was spiteful: a gift. Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew: a gift. The words of all the dead geniuses and the living ones too, Carson and Tolentino and Offill herself, read again and again—No one young knows the name of anything—a gift, a gift, a gift.

But what do I know? I’m not someone’s wife yet, and not someone’s mother—I haven’t had to ignore the pram in the hall to get my sentences down. Still, Dederer’s insistence “that creative work is in conflict with personal life,” as Rebecca Solnit rightly puts it, strikes me not only as a worn-out proposition but as patently false, illogical, and ignorant of the evidence. After all, the book in my hands—Offill’s brainy, gorgeous, artful book—was written after motherhood, is about motherhood. I don’t think she had to be a monster to write it. Reading Dept. of Speculation doesn’t make me think—as the author of that Bustle listicle did—that my impulse to forgo motherhood in favor of art-making is right. It makes me think it is terribly, terribly wrong.

Then again, I read past the sixth page. “My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited,” the narrator says of her daughter. “There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.” Dept. of Speculation is one such song—if you listen to the whole of it, not just the hook. And if you reach the novel’s end, you’ll find that the husband has become you again, that the wife is I once more. “Love is the principal motivation in these stories for women’s flight from form or tampering with boundaries,” Carson writes of her myths, but I think of the newfound forms of books like Offill’s, of how many boundaries are cheerfully flouted by the many brilliant works about motherhood listed in Paskin’s review.

“Marriage is the animating question, but not the ending,” Tolentino writes of the women, all too rare in the classics of the Western canon, who are neither broken nor defined by the minor fact of being wives. “Theirs is the third way, the one in which marriage neither destroys nor completes you, the one that leads most clearly to the present day.” The present day is where we live, where we work and love. One needn’t stymie the other. Neither requires selfishness. Both require effort, passion, thoughtfulness, and the willingness to make something of the sweet mess of our lives. The art monster, like any monster, is just a fantasy, a shadow on the wall. She is an outline, a caricature, while we are fully drawn. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve found that when I’m able to make my art it makes me, in turn—makes me my I, that is, my best self, not my worst.

I have one last quibble with Dederer’s essay. In quoting Martha Gellhorn’s line, “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being”—yet another joke taken all too seriously—Dederer refers to the war correspondent, acclaimed novelist, and supremely gifted travel writer as the girlfriend of Ernest Hemingway. She was his wife.

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About the author

Mairead Small Staid

Mairead Small Staid is an essayist living in Minnesota. More of her work can be found at https://maireadsmallstaid.com/.