The Reading Life: Fewer Things to Make Fun Of


One long weekend, a few months after I had turned 21, my best friend and I took a trip. We wanted to see a lake or a forest, maybe some needlepoint hanging on a wall. We drove for a long time, crossing bridges that all looked the same. At one point, on a Massachusetts radio station we recognized a very recognizable song, and my friend asked me not to change it. I was surprised; usually we listened to much cooler music, made by people we wanted to look like and be. This was not that. This was a song I had never cared about before, and suddenly I cared about it more than anything else.

The cover of Tapestry is a picture of Carole King sitting by a window in her Laurel Canyon home. She is barefoot in jeans, her hair a halo of naturally brown frizz. In the foreground sits Telemachus, her cat. A part of me cannot look at the Tapestry tableau without thinking of the mothers I’ve seen in Northern California farmers’ markets, wearing fleece vests and socks with their sandals, or of the art teacher I had growing up, who loved linen pants and now teaches yoga privately out of her home. Unfathomably comfortable, those women used to baffle and embarrass me. Even though King was then only two years older than me now, I associate her bare ease with middle age, a point I still don’t accept as inevitable.

I have always been susceptible to melody, but I think Carole King made me understand that I could like something I didn’t identify with, either because it was too emotional, or because it was too naked about its loneliness, or because it looked like what I did not want to become. A lot of the lyrics on Tapestry are pop-song dumb (“snow is cold / and rain is wet” being a great example), reveling in wide-eyed feelings that you would feel ridiculous expressing to another person. That’s a trick though. Tapestry is smarter than that. As Rilke says, I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

Jenny Offill places that Rilke quote deep in Dept. of Speculation’s third act. Dept. of Speculation, if it were ice cream, would give its readers major headaches. Which is not to say that it is unsubstantial; other critics have written about its deceptive length, saying it has heft despite its slimness. I agree. It is probably the best novel-in-fragments I have read. It’s like a good pop record, focused on the personal, smoothly intelligent, intimately precise. I didn’t know much about the plot, but it’s not hard to follow: a woman is single, then she falls in love; she gets married, enjoys domestic bliss; she has a child who is a delightful problem, a husband who befits her.

At the halfway point, I stopped reading. I thought: If he cheats on her, I will just lose it. Well.

Her husband goes for someone who is “easier.” Shocked, the main character becomes more and more unhinged, in funny and sad ways, and they move to the country to repair what’s been broken. By the end of the book, I felt devastated on her behalf and slightly embarrassed by that devastation. My guess is no one wants to relate to a woman who is jealous and upset, unloved and unloving. No one wants to be unscalable.

But this book is more than its plot, thank god. There were two moments that made me feel like I was hearing very clearly, like I was catching what Offill was saying.

Moment one: the main character is ghostwriting a book about the history of the space program, and in her research she discovers a “cosmic love story.” Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan were on the committee to select sounds and images for the Voyager Golden Records, phonographs with recordings meant to stand for the diversity of life on Earth. Sagan and Druyan, despite being with other people, fell in love while working on the project. “For keeps,” Sagan said. He proposed to her over the phone, and two days later she sat down, hooked up to a computer, and had her brain scanned as she meditated. She thought about civilization, the history of ideas, poverty, and violence. And she thought about what it was like to fall in love. Her thoughts were sent into space.

Moment two: the main character is going to yoga to cope with her unraveling sense of self. She used to make fun of people like this, like her. “But now,” she says, “it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.”

In her review of Dept. of Speculation Elaine Blair points out that the disintegration of the narrator’s idyllic marriage most seriously threatens a deal she made with herself, not others. Taking steps toward adulthood, getting married and having a child she loves and cares for, she believed that she was doing something right, that loving two people was proof of something about her. But the point Offill makes is this: you’ll never be sure about what you’ll be. What devastates in a story of heartbreak is not the heartbreak, but the paring down of expectations until none remain. It’s inevitable, and it’s embarrassing, but it can be worth preserving. It could be worth recording for someone else to find.

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  1. The author-tagging system seems to be malfunctioning. As it stands I have to outmaneuver this cumbersome website every time I think I’d like to see if I have missed anything Jen Vafidis has written. I do like this thing.

    1. Brendan — I’ve updated the system so that pagination has been turned on for author archives as of now. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.