:: Article

Types of Silence

By Jeffrey Zuckerman.

Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation, Knopf / Granta, 2014 

About halfway through Jenny Offill’s arresting Dept. of Speculation, the narrative suddenly shifts from first to third person. “Here I am, the lucky one for once” gives way to “the wife is praying a little.” Somehow, the shift is an inconspicuous one; only a few pages later does the reader realize that she is not reading, say, the narrator’s notes, but the story of the narrator herself. How did the framework change without our noticing it?

Perhaps it happened somewhere between the gaps and omissions of Offill’s novel. The book’s title, Dept. of Speculation, is missing six letters; it seems a perfect analogue to the story itself, which skips over the easily abbreviated, in-between moments to highlight the most crucial scenes, the beginnings and endings and climaxes. If we can expand Dept. out to Department, it is because we have been taught how to shift from the abbreviation to the full word. And when we fill in the gaps between the hundreds of loosely connected paragraphs in Dept. of Speculation, it is because we have learned from the world around us how a romance should happen: the meet-cute, the courtship and loveship, the plateau of marriage. The spaces in between are banal enough.

The silence of knowing, of withholding words. The silence of exhaustion after sex. The silence of a computer cursor waiting for the next word. The silence after dessert, curled up in front of the fire. The silence before a nap. The silence of moonlight. The silence of a glass of warm milk. The silence of a gap between two paragraphs in Dept. of Speculation.

To give a basic overview of the storyline—a woman (acting as our narrator, and then, after the shift, our protagonist) falling in love with a man and then growing distant from him because of an affair on his part—is to lose the trees for the forest. What are the trees? Hundreds of observations, small thoughts, insights, pseudo-explanations, all interwoven with quirky, random facts, some about love and some about other things. “Antelopes have 10x vision,” the book begins. These arbitrary bits of trivia have their roots in the narrator’s early job as a fact-checker for a science magazine, but as these details fill out the narrator’s thoughts, these various skewed perspectives seem to exhort us readers to look at this tiny book in our hand, weighing a little less than a hand, and to hold it much farther away than our arms can reach.

But we are human, and we hold the book up close to our eyes, and dwell on or skim past or try to fill in the gaps between each line. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the human brain: it fills in the holes in our visual field, and so it easily and energetically fills in the purposeful holes of Offill’s story.

Years ago, I moved to Illinois and took a job at Dalkey Archive Press. In moments of quiet, I wandered to the shelves in the back of the office and flipped through David Markson’s books. A book you come across casually, when you should have been reading another one, can strike you with all the more force because its attack has been a surprise.

And yet, I was not surprised. Only delighted. The accretion of disconnected paragraphs and thoughts was a trick I had seen writers attempt before, in increasing numbers after Eliot’s Modernist use of “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” To wit, these texts’ first lines:

“Conversation was difficult and correspondence virtually ceased.”
[John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist and His Work,” 1961]

“Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages.”
[Renata Adler, Speedboat, 1976]

“In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.”
[David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, 1988]

“I have a dream of working a combination lock that is engraved on its back with the combination. Left 85, right 12, left 66. ‘Well shit, man,’ I say in the dream.”
[Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever, 2002]

“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.”
[Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation, 2014]

The silence of forgotten shrines. The silence of open manholes. The silence of a perfectly turned epigram. The silence of a ball aloft in the air. The silence under stars. The silence outside a raucous bar. The silence in the movement of an electron. The silence an astronaut must hear if he lets himself hear outer space.

Is it fair to group Dept. of Speculation with these other fragmentary novels? They all start in medias res, hinting at a story we are supposed to already know. They all start with the same aim: to reflect the chaos of the modern mind in less chaotic words and gaps. (Anne Carson’s consideration of silence in Nay Rather comes to mind here: “Most of us, given a choice between chaos and naming, between catastrophe and cliché, would choose naming.”)

But all these texts go in wildly different directions. Even authors change course from book to book. Renata Adler kept the tightrope intensity of chaos through Speedboat’s end, while her Pitch Dark built toward a resolution of disparate storylines. David Markson let Wittgenstein’s Mistress coalesce around a woman, and then headed toward the inchoate variety of a commonplace book in The Last Novel.

Maybe emotion is what drives the fuse of Offill’s manifold sections. In one section, I cried both times I read it, and my friend, later, recited the core of it by heart, breathing life into the despair of a miscarriage:

We had told people. We had to untell them. You did it so I wouldn’t have to speak. Later, you made me a dinner of all the things I hadn’t been allowed to eat. Cured meat, unpasteurized cheese. Two bottles of wine, then finally, sleep.

And personal association, too. I kept wiping away tears through the next paragraphs, a list of questions and answers about sparrows, because all I could think of was the beauty of Craig Arnold’s poem “A Ubiquity of Sparrows”—the one that ends, “Sparrow do you imagine more than a little warm / rambunctious life between two corridors of nothing // the one forever before     the one forever after”

The silence of a postnatal ward. The silence of hugging a best friend again and again. The silence of an archaic structure. The silence of a frozen photograph. The silence between metronome beats.

Jenny Offill’s fragments give way to a story told in snippets; entire chapters follow a linear path with the occasional fact included. The once-stray facts, nearly every one of them, come to matter. That mention of antelopes having 10x vision? Only fourteen pages later, the narrator adds this scene:

We passed the antelope diorama. ‘10x,’ I said, but you wouldn’t look at me. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. Nothing. Nothing. But, later, in the gem room, you got down on one knee. All around us shining things.

A book of gaps and silences can be made entirely out of facts. There is a silence in the first lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—“The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things.”—and that silence is larger and more profound than that of the final line—“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

And silence, indeed, seems to be the goal, the ambition of Offill’s story. There are fewer and fewer facts as we get deeper into the book’s pages, as if the writer felt less of a need to patch up the awkward spaces. There comes a clearer sense of what our narrator and protagonist actually thinks and feels. The pieces come together, more and more, and shift away from an obsessive, internal world, armored with a thousand little thoughts, to an understanding of the real world. After a move from the city to the Pennsylvania countryside, “The wife has to remind herself to notice that it is beautiful here. She goes for a walk in the woods after a week of rain, wearing the husband’s heavy boots.” The final paragraph opens on an image of snow—“Finally”—a whiteness that erases clutter and smoothes it over. “No one young knows the name of anything,” the book ends.

That shift from “I” to “she”—maybe that is the author’s way of turning her frenzied thoughts in her head to silent words on a page. Of turning worry and chaos to order and calm.

The silence of words unsaid. The silence of snow. The silence of not knowing. The silence. Sudden, silence.

Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, Best European Fiction, The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation and The Los Angeles Review of Books. In his free time, he does not listen to music.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 30th, 2014.