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by Jenny Offill

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Overview

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER 

From the beloved author of the nationwide best seller Dept. of Speculationone of the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of the Yeara “darkly funny and urgent” (NPR) tour de force about a family, and a nation, in crisis


Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. Sylvia has become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization.

As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you've seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience—but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she's learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in—funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

“Offill’s fragmentary structure evokes an unbearable emotional intensity: something at the core of the story that cannot be narrated directly, by straight chronology, because to do so would be like looking at the sun…” —The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385351119
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/11/2020
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 11,218
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

JENNY OFFILL is the author of the novels Last Things (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the L.A. Times First Book Award), and Dept. of Speculation, which was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Pen Faulkner Award and the International Dublin Award. She lives in upstate New York and teaches at Syracuse University and in the low residency program at Queens University.

Read an Excerpt

One

In the morning, the one who is mostly enlightened comes in. There are stages and she is in the second to last, she thinks. This stage can be described only by a Japanese word. “Bucket of black paint,” it means.

I spend some time pulling books for the doomed adjunct. He has been working on his dissertation for eleven years. I give him reams of copy paper. Binder clips and pens. He is writing about a phi­losopher I have never heard of. He is minor, but instrumental, he told me. Minor but instrumental!

But last night, his wife put a piece of paper on the fridge. Is what you’re doing right now making money? it said.
 
The man in the shabby suit does not want his fines lowered. He is pleased to contribute to our institu­tion. The blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper.

I brave a theory about vaccinations and another about late capitalism. “Do you ever wish you were thirty again?” asks the lonely heart engineer. “No, never,” I say. I tell him that old joke about going backward.

We don’t serve time travelers here.
A time traveler walks into the bar.

On the way home, I pass the lady who sells whirl­ing things. Sometimes when the students are really stoned, they’ll buy them. “No takers today,” she says. I pick out one for Eli. It’s blue and white, but blurs to blue in the wind. Don’t forget quarters, I remember.

At the bodega, Mohan gives me a roll of them. I admire his new cat, but he tells me it just wan­dered in. He will keep it though because his wife no longer loves him.

“I wish you were a real shrink,” my husband says.
“Then we’d be rich.”
 

 
Henry’s late. And this after I took a car service so I wouldn’t be. When I finally spot him, he’s drenched. No coat, no umbrella. He stops at the corner, gives change to the woman in the trash- bag poncho.

My brother told me once that he missed drugs because they made the world stop calling to him. Fair enough, I said. We were at the supermarket. All around us things tried to announce their true nature. But their radiance was faint and fainter still beneath the terrible music.

I try to get him warmed up quickly: soup, coffee. He looks good, I think. Clear- eyed. The waitress makes a new pot, flirts with him. People used to stop my mother on the street. What a waste, they’d say. Eyelashes like that on a boy!

So now we have extra bread. I eat three pieces while my brother tells me a story about his NA meeting. A woman stood up and started ranting about antidepressants. What upset her most was that people were not disposing of them properly. They tested worms in the city sewers and found they contained high concentrations of Paxil and Prozac.

When birds ate these worms, they stayed closer to home, made more elaborate nests, but appeared unmotivated to mate. “But were they happier?” I ask him. “Did they get more done in a given day?”
 

 
The window in our bedroom is open. You can see the moon if you lean out and crane your neck. The Greeks thought it was the only heavenly object similar to Earth. Plants and animals fifteen times stronger than our own inhabited it.

My son comes in to show me something. It looks like a pack of gum, but it’s really a trick. When you try to take a piece, a metal spring snaps down on your finger. “It hurts more than you think,” he warns me.

Ow.

I tell him to look out the window. “That’s a wax-ing crescent,” Eli says. He knows as much now about the moon as he ever will, I suspect. At his old school, they taught him a song to remember all its phases. Sometimes he’ll sing it for us at din-ner, but only if we do not request it.

The moon will be fine, I think. No one’s worrying about the moon.


 
The woman with the bullhorn is at the school door this morning. She’s warning the parents not to go in, to leave the children there behind the red line. “Safety first!” she yells. “Safety first!”

But sometimes Eli cries if he’s left in that loud scrum of people. He doesn’t like having to walk alone from one side of that huge cafeteria to the other. Once he froze in the middle until some aide grabbed him by the elbow and pushed him toward his corner.

So today we make a run for it and dart past her to his assigned assembly point. His friend is at the table and has animal crackers, so I make it out of there without tears, but not before the bullhorn woman screams at me. “No parents! No parents may accompany their children!”

God, she loves that bullhorn. Something shoots through my body at the sound of her voice, then I’m out on the street again, telling myself not to think.
 
I’m not allowed to think about how big this school is or how small he is. I’ve made that mistake after other drop-offs. I should be used to it by now, but sometimes I get spooked all over again.
 

 
 
All day long cranky professors. I swear the ones with tenure are the crankiest. They will cut past other people in line to check out a book or set up their hold list. Studies have shown that 94% of college professors think that they do above average work.
 
They gave us a guide the other day. Tips for Dealing with Problem Patrons. The professors weren’t mentioned. There were the following categories.

Malodorous
Humming
Laughing
Defacing
Laundering
Combative
Chattering
Lonely
Coughing

But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password for his own email? I try to explain that it is not possible for me to know this, that only he knows this, but he just shakes his head in that indignant way that means, What kind of help desk is this?
 


There’s a poster of Sylvia at the bus stop. It says she’s coming to give a talk on campus. Years ago, I was her grad student, but then I gave up on it. She used to check in on me sometimes to see if I was still squandering my promise. The answer was always yes. Finally, she pulled some strings to
get me this job even though I don’t have a proper degree for it.
 
On the way home, I listen to her new podcast. This episode is called “The Center Cannot Hold.” They could all be called that. But Sylvia’s voice is almost worth the uptick in dread. It’s soothing to me even though she talks only of the invisible horsemen galloping toward us.

There are recognizable patterns of ascent and decline. But our industrial civilization is so vast, it has such reach . . .
 
I look out the window. Something in the distance, limping toward the trees.
 

 
The door opens and Eli hurls himself at me. I help him peel some rubber cement off his hands, then he goes back to his game. This is the one that everyone likes. It is a 3-D procedurally generated world, according to my husband. Educational.
 
It’s fun to watch them play. They put together buildings block by block, then fill the rooms with minerals that they have mined with pickaxes they have made. They assemble green fields and raise chickens to eat. “I killed one!” Eli yells. “It’s almost night,” Ben tells him.

There are bills and supermarket flyers. Also a magazine addressed to a former tenant. The cover promises tips for helping depressive people.

What to say:

I’m sorry that you’re in so much pain. I am not going to leave you. I am going to take care of myself, so you don’t need to worry that your pain might hurt me.

What not to say:

Have you tried chamomile tea?

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