Tipped Issue #4

A marriage undone in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation & 15 events you should attend at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival

I can’t believe it is August now, and I am blessed with time-off for a week, otherwise known as working your ass off to purchase free time for yourself. Hopefully, this staycation will be an in-vitro writing retreat, although it is so wearying as I am constantly possessed by the urge to be with my family and the itch to quit my job.

Anyway, I want to be more experimental with Tipped and I was thinking about if it should be really niche i.e. having a newsletter solely focused on literature. Let me know what you’d love to see covered and what you think of this issue in the comments.

Stay safe 📢

A marriage undone

Reading time: 4 minutes

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown have tested many relationships, especially the one with our partners. In my mind, it has reinforced the notion that patience takes priority over love when it comes to living together with your SO. And it is always the smallest things that you have fights about, not grandiose conflicts the novels of the old days tell you about. If Madame Bovary ended up with her lover Rodolphe today, she would eventually have a fit because he forgot to take out the trash on the collection day.

The American novelist Jenny Offill takes a look at just those fiddling details of a marriage that ultimately wreak havoc in Dept. of Speculation. The protagonist is a woman who actually plans to never get married and be ‘an art monster’, although she knows women never only concern themselves with art. ‘Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella’, she says. ‘Vera licked his stamps for him’.

The Nabokovs.

She caves in and marries a man, who is making soundscapes of the city on the radio. He becomes her person. They get married and have a baby, following a miscarriage. The art monster plan is shelved, the man gets a better paying job that is ‘only vaguely soul-crushing’. The baby dominates her life, the baby becomes her. Yet, it is not the linearity and familiarity of the marriage narrative that entrances the reader, but how it is clearly distilled, like diapositives projected in a dark room, which forces your attention onto the image and the image only, without any distraction.

The writer, Jenny Offill, whose voice alone gives me LIFE

Yes, it is the small things that change the dynamics of their relationship, living with bedbugs and the annoyance it bludgeons on them. It is big things like, to be asked ‘When were you the happiest?’ by your partner, insinuating happiness is a thing of the past when together. The woman ghostwrites a book with an ‘almost astronaut’, during which she talks about Vladimir Komarov, the pilot of the ill-fated Soyuz I. The pilot knows this will be a death mission but is launched into the orbit anyway. Things go south and the ground control tries to guide him home. It fails, no body whatsoever to recover.

Invariably, their marriage crashes, brought about by an affair the man is having. Then an amazing switch happens in the narration: ‘I’ becomes ‘the wife’ as ‘he’ becomes ‘the husband and ‘we’ with someone else for the rest of the novel as the narrative focuses on the universally slow death of a marriage, and subsequent personal and marital bookkeeping.

The wife is advised to read a horribly titled adultery book. She takes the subway three neighborhoods away to buy it. The whole experience of reading it makes her feel compromised, and she hides it around the house with the fervor another might use to hide a gun or a kilo of heroin. In the book, he is referred to as the participating partner and she as the hurt one. There are many other icky things, but there is one thing in the book that makes her laugh out loud. It is in a footnote about the way different cultures handle repairing a marriage after an affair. 

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. 

The rescue mission takes the shape of counselling, awkward post-affair sex, family gatherings, and fighting in whispers so that their child does not hear them. But it works eventually —the wife and the husband become ‘we’ when they establish their own spaces, when he gets to play the piano as long and loud as he wants and she gets to have a room of her own to write, looking out over the garden. They become ‘we’ when they resume noticing small things.

At dinner, the wife watches the husband as he peels an apple for the daughter in a perfect spiral. Later, when she is grading papers, she comes across a student's story with the same image in it. The father and daughter, the apple, the Swiss Army knife. Uncanny really. Beautifully written. She checks for a name, but there is nothing. (…) She goes outside to read it to the husband. "I wrote that," he says. "I slipped it into your papers to see if you would notice." 

The Zen master Ikkyu was once asked to write a distillation of the highest wisdom. He wrote only one word: Attention.

Dept of Speculation, Granta Books. 2015.

Edinburgh International Book Festival goes online

Reading time: 3 minutes

There is another book by Jenny Offill I want to write about, so apologies if Tipped becomes too Offilled (I am really proud of my pun). I am patiently waiting for her event as part of The Edinburgh International Book Festival, where she will talk about her latest novel Weather, which I absolutely loved.

The pandemic has reversed our collective misfortune of not being able to attend high-profile events, such as international book fairs. This year’s Hay Festival, brilliantly turned into a free online festival, was the epitome of truly international events as people from all over the world flooded the chat boxes of the streams. The Center for Fiction’s online events were another delight in my literary diet during the pandemic —I kept tearing during an event because it was so wonderful to hear my hero Olivia Laing’s words of hope when she talked about her latest book, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, and it did not matter whether I was able to be there physically or not.

I am elated that the trend is sticking as The Edinburgh International Book Festival will be reaching out to many readers across many time zones. The Festival is hailed as a ‘democratic forum’ where writers and readers come together, and this time it will be at its most accessible version as it will be free of any charge. To celebrate, I have decided to share some of the events I signed up for, although I am positive I will miss some of them due to my work schedule.

Let me know which ones you signed up! And thank you for reading Tipped 😌