‘The Smallest Possible Disaster’

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Private Collection
Félix Vallotton: Cinq Heures or Intimité, 1898

You can read Jenny Offill’s new novel in about two hours. It’s short and funny and absorbing, an effortless-seeming downhill ride that picks up astonishing narrative speed as it goes. What’s remarkable is that Offill achieves this effect using what you might call an experimental or avant-garde style of narration, one that we associate with difficulty and disorientation rather than speed and easy pleasure. The novel tells the story of a marital crisis in the lives of a previously more-or-less happy couple. Short microepisodes from the lives of the couple alternate with facts and quotations from all kinds of sources—scientific studies, foreign proverbs, the poems of John Berryman, the writing of Simone Weil, to take a few examples.

Here, in its entirety, is a chapter from near the beginning of the book. The narrator is recalling a period of her life when she was in her late twenties and early thirties. She has recently published her first novel. She has had various boyfriends but is now single and lives alone in New York:

There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.

The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.

Blue jays spend every Friday with the devil, the old lady at the park told me.

“You need to get out of that stupid city,” my sister said. “Get some fresh air.” Four years ago, she and her husband left [the city]. They moved to Pennsylvania to an old ramshackle house on the Delaware River. Last spring, she came to visit me with her kids. We went to the park; we went to the zoo; we went to the planetarium. But still they hated it. Why is everyone yelling here?

The philosopher’s apartment was the most peaceful place I knew. It had good light and looked out over the water. We spent our Sundays there eating pancakes and eggs. He was adjuncting now and doing late nights at the radio station. “You should meet this guy I work with. He makes soundscapes of the city.” I looked at the pigeons outside his window. “What does that even mean?” I said.

He gave me a CD to take home. On the cover was an old yellow phone book, ruined by rain. I closed my eyes and listened to it. Who is this person? I wondered.…


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