Authors: Jenny Offill
mines an interval of childhood before the division of intellectual labor. In this state of innocence, science, philosophy, mythology, bunk, wonder, and sorrow are all one. Jenny Offill’s complicated and arresting farewell to this dangerous time is compelling as few recent novels on the subject have been.”
The Baltimore Sun
“Stunning.… Dazzling.… A delightful novel, rich for its voracious eye onto real and imaginary moments of quandary in the lives of its characters and in the larger life of the universe.”
“[A] gem of a first novel.”
Los Angeles Times
“Mesmerizing.… Pitch-perfect.… [Offill] writes with a heartbreaking clarity.”
“Offill’s debut is a rare feat of remarkable constraint and nearly miraculous construction of a most unique family.”
Jenny Offill is the author of two novels,
Dept. of Speculation
, which was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by
The New York Times
and was a finalist for the
Los Angeles Times
First Book Award. She teaches in the writing programs at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.
Dept. of Speculation
FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, MARCH 2015
Copyright © 1999 by Jenny Offill
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, in 1999.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Contemporaries and colophon are trademarks of Random House LLC.
The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.
Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN: 978-1-101-87207-9
eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-87208-6
Author photograph © Emily Tobey
Cover design by Linda Huang
Cover image © Mary Evans Picture Library/The Image Works
for my grandparents
Put your trust in the inexhaustible character of the murmur.
“Once,” my mother said, “there was no true darkness. Even at night, the moon was as bright as the sun. The only difference was that the light was blue. You could see clearly for miles and miles and it was never cold. And this was called twilight.”
“Why twi?” I asked.
“Because it rhymes with sky,” my mother said. “It’s a code word for blue.” Code blue was what they said when someone died, I remembered, and this, too, had to do with the sky.
One day God called the bat to him and gave him a basket to carry to the moon. The basket was filled with darkness, but God didn’t tell him what it was. Instead, he said, “Take this to the moon. I’ll explain everything when you return.” So the bat set off for the moon with the basket on his back. He flew toward the sky, but the moon saw him and hid behind a cloud. The bat grew tired and stopped for a rest. He put down the basket and went off to find something to eat. While he was gone, other animals came along.
(Dogs and wolves mostly, also a badger with a broken paw.) These animals thought there might be food in the basket and pried the cover off, but inside there was only darkness, which they had never seen before. The dogs and wolves tried to pull it out and play with it, but it slipped away between their teeth and slithered off. Just then, the bat returned. He opened the basket and found it empty. The other animals disappeared into the night. The bat flew off to try to recapture the darkness. He could see it everywhere, but he couldn’t fit it back inside his basket, no matter how he tried. And that is why the bat sleeps all day and flies all night. He’s still trying to catch the dark.
“Which part of the story was the part about Africa?” I wanted to know. I had asked my mother to tell me about Africa and instead she had told me about the bat. “It’s all about Africa,” my mother said, frowning. “Everything except the part about God.”
When my mother was very young, she lived in Tanzania and studied birds. It was there that she met my father. He had come to Africa to set up a fishery and she had taught him some Swahili and that was that. “Before you were born, I met him,” my mother said. “Before you were even a gleam in my eye.” This made her laugh. I laughed too. I had seen a picture of my parents in Africa, standing on the beach, holding a giant silver fish between them. When they lived in Tanzania, my mother said, village boys would wait near the trees at dusk and scoop bats out of the sky with nets.
In my notebook, I wrote:
a bat is not a bird = mammal
My mother spelled out each word for me and later I added “idealistic” to the list, which is what she said my father had been once. I kept the notebook because I thought that I might want to be a detective someday. I wrote down everything I heard, and when the pages started to fall out, I stuck them back inside with glue. I had an idea that someday someone would come to me with a mystery and I would open up the notebook and all the clues would already be there.
My mother told me that another name for detective was P.I. and that this was the word for a number that no one could ever finish writing. I said, “What if you wrote all day and all night and never slept for a hundred years?”
“Even then,” my mother said, “you wouldn’t be done.”
About the bat, I wanted to know: Why was the darkness in a basket? Why did the moon hide from the bat? How did the badger hurt his paw? What do bats eat? Where did the darkness run? What happened to the dogs and wolves that started everything?
“Bats eat fruit and insects mostly,” my mother said. “The darkness ran everywhere at once.”
“Do bats eat people?”
“No,” she said. “But there’s a kind in South America that drinks the blood of sleeping things. Sometimes they bite people without even waking them because their touch is as light as a kiss.”
My mother turned off the light and closed the door. The room became its night self then, full of deep corners that swallowed up the dark. Shadows moved across the wall, chasing the lights of cars. I closed my eyes and tried to dream in another language. My mother knew five languages by heart and could dream in three. Her father had been a linguist and once she had wanted to be one too. Sometimes she spent all night translating what one person in her dream said to another. When she woke up, she was so tired she could barely speak. That was why she slept all day and wandered around the house at night.
In Africa, my mother said, there is a secret city where no one ever sleeps. If a traveler stumbles upon it and falls asleep, he will be buried alive before he wakes. The villagers have never seen sleep before and would think he had died in the night. If he woke up while he was being buried, they would think he was a demon and beat him to death. The only sign you have entered the sleepless city is a certain unceasing murmuring even in the dead of night. Otherwise, it looks like every other place. Travelers are advised to wander through each city, asking passersby, “Where can I sleep?” because in the sleepless city no one knows the answer.
My mother had taught me a little French. “What is your name?” I knew and “Please, can you help me find …?” Once I’d asked my mother to teach me Swahili and she said, “You already know one word. Can you guess what it is?” I had guessed “detective,” but this had been wrong. “Safari,” she said. “It’s an old Swahili word for travel.” This was the word for the shows my father liked to watch on TV. “Yes,” my mother said. “That’s exactly right.”
Later I wrote “safari” in my notebook next to the word “Sophie,” the name of my mother’s other daughter, the one who died in Africa before I was born. Once I asked her if Sophie could speak Swahili before she died, but my mother said she had been too little to speak anything at all.
Another time, my mother told me that when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form. I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late. “Where did all the words go?” I asked.