On Jenny Offill and "making bank"
By Patrick McGinty
There is a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality, particularly when writing about parenthood, and by writing in short more-prose-than-poem shards across 46 chapters, Offill always halts before indulging in the latter. If the moment is tender, then the shard will be tender—the newborn gives her mother “a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.” But “tender” is little more than a fancy word for near-raw. The book is a relentless quest to unpack every trope and truism about motherhood and immediately junk the gift inside. When hearing the phrase “sleep like a baby” on the subway, the narrator wants to “to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.” A long italicized mashup of nursery rhymes, kid’s activities, and board games ends with the devastating line “you be the thumble, mama, I’ll be the car.”
There is an equally fine line between conveying exhaustion and madness, one that the character navigates with prescriptions and outbursts and that Offill handles with shifting pronouns and understated honesty. “When she is alone,” says the narrator, writing about herself in letters she postmarks Dept. of Speculation, “the objects around her bristle with intent.” Yet the book is brisk because it doesn’t dwell in the darkness. Yes, “the only love that feels like love is the doomed kind,” but a later shard might relight the scene with a quick, incisive pointerlight: “Studies show that 110% of men who leave their wives for other women report that their wives are crazy.” “Nothing” is the first answer given to the question “You know what’s punk rock about marriage?” The second answer elaborates: “All the puke and shit and piss.”
This is one of those emerging books that makes fiction feel like performance art—the changing pronouns, the conversational quoting of Rilke and Keats and Weil, the discussion of writing via writing. When these books are too brainy, they can feel like chores. But in a city where there’s “nowhere to cry,” the whirring mind of Offill’s narrator is used chiefly to try and explain her emotional fracture. “There is still such crookedness in my heart,” says the narrator. “I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.”
Jenny Offill. Her narrator invokes and quotes Wittgenstein, as does Maggie Nelson in Bluets.
he made bank for that book.”
Where does one hear such news? About book deals and advances and royalties? About the commercial aspect of literary art? I ask so that I can avoid such outlets, though I realize that the practice of avoidance is generally a childish pursuit—barring Amazon’s forthcoming delivery drones being painted orange on the nose and white on the wings, books are not brought into this world via the stork. Some distant corner of my brain registers the zillion spreadsheets and presses and distribution centers that bring a book into existence, but I read fiction primarily to feel as though none of that exists. I read to experience what feels like extended, direct communication with an artist.
However (or is it unfortunately?), when a friend informed me that the galley in my hand had received a (hard-won and well-deserved and yes, hefty) payout from a major publisher, a number of neurons started firing off.
The first thought: How awesome for Jenny Offill. Good for her.
The second: And how odd, because it feels like as recently as three or four years ago, this book would have been published by a small press. This is not simply because of its size and thoughtful construction, though both will obviously signal “small press” to anyone even remotely familiar with book production in the past decade. Offill invokes and quotes Wittgenstein like Maggie Nelson in Bluets. The unnamed woman in trouble and her shape-shifting pronouns (I, she, a direct-addressed you, etc.) are simpatico with Our Woman from Anakana Schofield’s amazing Malarky. Offill’s linguistic playfulness in painfully played-out scenarios—turning marriage counseling into the “Little Theater of Hurt Feelings”—rivals Leni Zumas’s re-imagination of hipsters as “sparks” in The Listeners. The epistolary shards are in the tradition of Camilo Jose Cela’s Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son and Joel Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, among others. The approach to paragraphing and pagination is reminiscent of Karen Green’s Bough Down. Thalia Field deserves her own essay. This type of spitballing could go on ad infinitum.
Third thought: My opinions are imprisoned by what I’ve already read. I am imagining similarities that are, in many cases, unfair to the uniqueness of the work produced by the writers. In short: stop theorizing.
Fourth thought: Thought Three is overly-PC. There are undeniable intertextual similarities amongst the books in Thought Two, as well as similarities in their publication. Wave Books in Seattle published Bluets and Letters to Wendy’s (and much of Thalia Field’s work). Biblioasis in Windsor, Ontario, published Malarkey. Cornell University Press published Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son in 1990. Tin House in Portland published The Listeners. Siglio Press in Los Angeles published Bough Down. Dalkey Archive Press published Wittgenstein’s Mistress and probably ten more paragraphs of books relevant to this essay. The outlier amongst this far-fetched but not-random group is Dept. of Speculation, which is published by Knopf, which is part of DoubleDay, which is part of Random House, which is insanely old and well-financed and, it should be noted, has brought many of our favorite books into existence.
“Insanely old and well-financed.” Random House Tower, on Broadway between 55th and 56th.
Fifth thought: Will more and more large presses start looking at the success of small, risk-taking, poetics-over-story and style-over-saleability novels from small, risk-taking, largely regional presses and say, “You know, we can do that, and we can reach more markets than they can?” Has this already happened?
Sixth thought: Assuming that this transference from small-to-big has already happened, is this a good or a bad thing? Wouldn’t other artistic industries kill for this type of infrastructure, i.e. a sustainable independent scene that is largely left alone to create trends which are ultimately absorbed by the bigger houses? Supposedly small-scale film festivals are embarrassingly corporate. Ditto musical festivals. The independent scene for music and short movies seems to be YouTube or the Internet at-large, which is bizarre and problematic in that 1) it’s hard to be both omnipresently public and independent 2) it seems awfully easy for the urge to “go viral” to creep in. Is the small, proverbial brick-and-mortar, difficult-to-market, thoughtfully-made small press book actually the best possible independent art that we have in America? The one corrupted by the least number of external influences? The least commercially aspirational and therefore the least compromised? Or does a small press run simply infuse a book with a rare type of cool? Doesn’t the thieving of a book such as Offill’s by a large press in some way validate the existence of the small press? And if more “shorter” “poetic” “small press” novels are now being pursued by large presses, what’s the next trend for the small press? Story collections? Translations? Story-poetry collections of translations? Biographies? Biographies of translators? Isn’t the point the not-knowing? To let it simmer in the minds of artists and authors around the country and find out three years from now from a small press in a small place?
Seventh Thought: (The second-guessing. The realization that I don’t know squat about the music or film industry. Or really even the book industry. “Thieving” is a bit strong. More than a bit. “Correlation is NOT causation” writes Offill, and I’m correlating quite a bit. The Dept. of Speculation probably has not sent tidal waves of change through the publishing world, though it should be said again that it’s a book worth your time, regardless of who published it.)
Eighth Thought: Maybe try and avoid people who obsess over book news.
Patrick McGinty’s fiction has appeared, most recently, in ZYZZYVA and The Portland Review. He recently wrote about Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree.