“Did Something Happen?”: On Elena Ferrante’s ‘Abandonment’ and Jenny Offill’s ‘Speculation’
I went on a trip back home to Texas last weekend with Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation in my backpack. I had no idea what either novel was about when I bought them; it surprised me to find that both were narrated by women whose husbands are having affairs.
We live in a world that is alarmingly full of options, which is why people have affairs and why I like plane rides in the company of books good enough to keep you off the expensive wifi: I read Offill’s book in one sitting and Ferrante’s in two. The authors’ styles are miles apart but both novels were tense and singular, their thoughts articulated with plain, needle-sharp beauty, like tiny leaves against the sky.
Book behavior can be just as callous as the behavior of love and sex. A quick look under the cover and if you’re not instantly electrified you’re out. Or else you—or else, I—buy books because someone told me to, or because I think they’re nice-looking. Why ever else go in? Because of my finicky tendencies I especially like a novel with a first-page lede, the wilder the better: what I admired most about Alyssa Nutting’s neon quickie Tampa was its first 500 words or so, all like, “I’m in the shower covering my tits in pink bubbles and fantasizing about fucking my 14-year-old students. It’s going to be tricky, you ready to watch me try?”
Like Tampa, Days of Abandonment gets right into it. The first sentence: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” The escalation, realistically, is jagged and halting, but within a few dozen pages the couple gets to the tone-setting conversation. The wife rockets in a few lines from civility to this: “What words should I use for what you’re doing with that woman! Let’s talk about it! Do you lick her cunt? Do you stick it in her ass? […] Because I see you! With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed!”
Offill’s slim story, in contrast, starts wry and oblique. “I found a book called Thriving Not Surviving in a box on the street. I stood there, flipping through it, unable to commit.” Her protagonist takes more than half the novel to get to a revelation that happens entirely in white space, between an Ovid quote (Wear yourself out if you must and prove in your bed, that you could/ Not/ Possibly be that good, coming from some other girl) and this chilling snippet:
Easier, he says.
Could/ Not/ Possibly. The narrator, ghostwriting a book about space, follows this up: “In 2159 B.C., the royal astronomers Hi and Ho were executed because they failed to predict an eclipse.”
You are stunned, and so hurt for her. How could the astronomers back then have predicted an eclipse? And what would everyone have done even if they had been able to intuit the impossible? And it’s just going to get dark anyway, isn’t it, eclipse or not?
It gets extremely, differently dark in both of these books. Ferrante’s style in translation is so elegant and artless that the resulting clarity is almost deceptive; it’s a veil by way of unveiling, a gloss over her story’s deep reserves of both disgust and fear of being disgusting. Bereft of her husband, the narrator becomes a walking womb, a drooping mouth, a series of aging holes that need to and can’t stand to be fucked. Her children blink at her like parasites; her body is a composite of parts that are useful to other people. In places, the writing is richly theoretical, the female experience semiotic and bestial; the demented wife beats her dog in public, sticks her bare ass straight in her neighbor’s face, watches her young daughter place large cold coins on the red forehead of her feverish son.
Dept. of Speculation, set in Brooklyn, is more Brooklyn about everything: the narrator is puffed-up, troubled by her own self-indulgence, appalled by time and communication and consciousness in a way that suggests that it’s not the female experience that’s unbearable here but the experience of being alive at all. Because of all this and not in spite of it, I loved her. Offill’s style is avoidant, poetic, and fragmented: you’ll think of Speedboat and Lydia Davis at points along the way. She communicates in paragraphs of just a few lines, raw as a journal.
She does not say, Last night, I pulled his hair. Last night I tried to pull his hair out of his head.
I shivered at this part:
In America, the participating partner is likely to spend an average of 1,000 hours processing the incident with the hurt partner. This cannot be rushed.
When she reads this, the wife feels very very sorry for the husband.
Who is only about 515 hours in.
Offill’s narrator, too, finds herself surprisingly out of control: on a corner in Midtown in the rain she waits for “the girl” outside the girl’s office, kicking a newspaper machine and screaming, “You fucked a child!… Tell her I’ll find her. Tell her I’m great at research. Tell her I’m fucking great at it…. Ten minutes! Ten fucking minutes! That’s all I want.” And she is humiliated, like her counterpart in Ferrante (who also attacks her husband and his new, much younger partner in public), by the fact that the other woman gets consoled first. “She felt ambushed,” explains the husband, sheepishly.
Ferrante’s narrator is named Olga, while Offill’s isn’t named at all. Regardless, both of them feel nameless because of the isolation of the first-person narrative, which switches in Dept. halfway through: the “I” shifts point of view to “the wife” the way we might become “a friend of mine” when we don’t want to admit something directly. Both Dept. and Days are stories essentially of women trying to deal, and their momentum depends on the reader absorbing some part of the narrators’ increasingly frantic, steel-sharp desire: Olga wants mostly (and so desperately) to feel pretty and useful and loved, while Offill’s narrator wants to be everything to her husband as badly as she wants her husband—or anything—to be everything to her. If none of that feels familiar, it will at least be recognizably upsetting that these women have both had a surprise, and a bad one; they are captured in the protracted, humiliating position of believing that there’s some way to go back to the way things were.
Worsening both of their predicaments is the fact that these women are failed and frustrated writers. They have already had another, very particular desire burned off by time and compromise. Offill’s narrator is closer to success, which of course only leads to her feeling worse. “I think I must have missed your second book,” says an acquaintance on the street. “No,” she replies. “There isn’t one.”
He looks uncomfortable; both of us are calculating the years or maybe only I am.
“Did something happen?” he says kindly after a moment.
“Yes,” I explain.
These books are the explanation. From Dept.: “Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say.” There’s real, magnetic, obstructive love between the narrator and her child: “I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.” Olga, on the other hand, feared becoming the abandoned poverella of her old neighborhood (“dry now as a salted anchovy”) more than she wanted what she wanted: “to be different, […] to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words.” She gave up earlier and more consciously, exchanged one kind of work for another, “calculatedly demonstrating to him all my virtues of a woman in love.” She explains her old self to herself: “I was young, I had pretensions.” Both women submit their bodies to men and children and watch their aspirations dwindle away, which is a future possibility I find just as—to be honest: more—unsettling as the idea of being so crudely stepped out on, and anticipate being equally tricky to avoid. The horror of how seamlessly domesticity usurped ambition, and following from that, swallowed up the self: that’s the true spiderweb of both Days and Dept.; the husband is just the louse that brought them in.
And who’s to say that either woman would have ever written a book like the ones they appear in—a book that compels you so completely that every other option becomes a blur? Time is valuable and the really good stuff’s so rare; readers stop when they’re bored, and people do too, and it’s often just chance and circumstance that keeps you going. I’d never have finished 2666 if I weren’t on a stopped train when I was reading the chapter with all the murders: when the book transmogrifies itself, flips all that hideous banality into sudden exaltation, I was glad to remember that most things are as good as the time you put into them. But novels are almost all stories of the latticework of ritual obligation snapping, and marriage is a book you’re supposed to keep looking at until you die. May the real Olgas be a little more selfish; may we never love the way we read.
Jia is really literary.