Folio Prize Nominee: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Posted on 21st March 2015 by Jenny Offill
Our look at the shortlist for the Folio Prize continues with Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.



Antelopes have 10× 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.

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.

Memories are microscopic. Tiny particles that swarm together and apart. Little people, Edison called them. Entities. He had a theory about where they came from and that theory was outer space.

The first time I traveled alone, I went to a restaurant and ordered a steak. But when it came I saw it was just a piece of raw meat cut into pieces. I tried to eat it, but it was too bloody. My throat refused to swallow. Finally, I spit it out into a napkin. There was still a great deal of meat on my plate. I was afraid the waiter would notice I wasn’t eating and laugh or yell at me. For a long time, I sat there, looking at it. Then I took a roll, hollowed it out, and secreted the meat inside it. I had a very small purse but I thought I could fit the roll in without being seen. I paid the bill, and walked out, expecting to be stopped, but no one stopped me.

I spent my afternoons in a city park, pretending to read Horace. At dusk, people streamed out of the Métro and into the street. In Paris, even the subways are required to be beautiful. They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.

There was a Canadian boy who ate only oatmeal. A French boy who asked to examine my teeth. An English boy who came from a line of druids. A Dutch boy who sold hearing aids.

I met an Australian who said he loved to travel alone. He talked about his job as we drank by the sea. When a student gets it, when it first breaks across his face, it’s so fucking beautiful, he told me. I nodded, moved, though I’d never taught anyone a single thing. What do you teach, I asked him. Rollerblading, he explained.

That was the summer it rained and rained. I remember the sad doggish smell of my sweater and my shoes sloshing crazily. And in every city, the same scene. A boy stepping into the street and opening an umbrella for a girl keeping dry in the doorway.

Another night. My old apartment in Brooklyn. It was late, but of course, I couldn’t sleep. Above me, speed freaks merrily disassembling something. Leaves against the window. I felt a sudden chill and pulled the blanket over my head. That’s the way they bring horses out of a fire, I remembered. If they can’t see, they won’t panic. I tried to figure out if I felt calmer with a blanket over my head. No I did not was the answer.




I got a job checking facts at a science magazine. Fun facts, they called them. The connected fibers in a human brain, extended, would wrap around the Earth forty times. Horrible, I wrote in the margin, but they put it through anyway.

I liked my apartment because all of the windows were at street level. In the summer, I could see people’s shoes, and in the winter, snow. Once, as I lay in bed, a bright red sun appeared in the window. It bounced from side to side, then became a ball.

Life equals structure plus activity.

Studies suggest that reading makes enormous demands on the neurological system. One psychiatric journal claimed that African tribes needed more sleep after being taught to read. The French were great believers in such theories. During WWII, the largest rations went to those engaged in arduous physical labor and those whose work involved reading and writing.

For years, I kept a Post-it note above my desk. WORK NOT LOVE! was what it said. It seemed a sturdier kind of happiness.

I found a book called Thriving Not Surviving in a box on the street. I stood there, flipping through it, unwilling to commit.

You think that the mental anguish you are experiencing is a permanent condition, but for the vast majority of people it is only a temporary state.

(But what if I’m special? What if I’m in the minority?)

I had ideas about myself. Largely untested. When I was a child, I liked to write my name in giant letters made of sticks.

What Coleridge said: If I do not greatly delude myself, I have not only completely extricated the notions of time, and space . . . but I trust that I am about to do more—namely that I shall be able to evolve all the five senses . . . & in this evolvement to solve the process of life and consciousness.

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters 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.

A bold plan was what my friend, the philosopher, said. But on my twenty-ninth birthday I turned my book in. If I do not greatly delude myself…

I went to a party and drank myself sick.

Are animals lonely?

Other animals, I mean.

Not long after that, an ex-boyfriend appeared on my doorstep. He seemed to have come all the way from San Francisco just to have coffee. On the way to the diner, he apologized for never really loving me. He hoped to make amends. “Wait,” I said. “Are you doing the steps?”

That night on TV, I saw the tattoo I wished my life had warranted. If you have not known suffering, love me. A Russian murderer beat me to it.

Of course, I thought of the drunkard boy in New Orleans, the one I loved best. Each night at the old sailors’ bar, I’d peel the labels off his bottles and try to entice him homeward. But he wouldn’t come. Not until light came through the window.

That one was so beautiful I used to watch him sleep. If I had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say it was this: he made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn’t.

In those last weeks, we drove without talking, trying to outride the heat, each alone in the dream the city had become. I was afraid to speak, to touch his arm even. Remember this sign, this tree, this broken-down street. Remember it is possible to feel this way. There were twenty days on the calendar, then fifteen, then ten, then the day I packed my car and left. I drove the length of two states, sobbing, heat like a hand against my chest. But I didn’t. I didn’t remember it.

For the second year running, The Folio Society and the British Library host a festival devoted to the art of storytelling from 20-22nd March. Find out more details here.


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