“Infused with dry wit” – Weather by Jenny Offill

We were cheerleaders for Dept. of Speculation all the way back in 2014/5 (though, like the slackers we are, we’ve still to read Offill’s first novel, Last Things) and so it’s been a long wait for the follow-up. Weather doesn’t disappoint: it’s a structural/formal echo of its predecessor (if it ain’t broke, etc) but it’s using that same structure to different ends, or different enough, anyway, that it still feels sharp and significant.

So! Lizzie is a librarian (unqualified) who’s moonlighting as an email-answerer for Sylvia, her one-time thesis supervisor, who in turn hosts a popular podcast about ‘times of crisis’ that’s very much geared around the looming climate catastrophe. While Lizzie’s replying to queries from religious fundamentalists and full-on preppers (folk actively readying for the end-times), she’s also worrying about and caring for Henry, her brother (a precariously-recovered addict) as well as being a parent (to Eli) and a wife (to Ben). The plot, beyond these basics, is scant: Ben is concerned about Lizzie’s mental health as Henry’s situation worsens and further infiltrates their own lives; Lizzie begins (understandably) to panic about the future in the face of climate change as her work for Sylvia intensifies; when Ben heads off with Eli on a long vacation with his sister, Lizzie refuses to go and gets embroiled instead in an intense flirtation, a fantasy affair, with a war journalist she meets in the bar where she used to work. That’s more or less it: the developments in these various areas aren’t really the point. What is the point is our tracing of Lizzie’s thoughts about those things. This isn’t a book concerned especially with what happens; rather, it’s about how we process what’s happening.

Offill uses the novel’s fragmented structure (lots of short pithy paragraphs, lots of white space) to craft a portrait of a mind – an intelligent mind – grappling with a load of overlapping existential crises: planetary, political, personal. And if you’re reading it, you’re probably starting to panic, too.

As a read, it’s quick, infused with dry wit, observant and deeply poignant. Lizzie is the quintessential humanities graduate cast adrift: smart, but feeling resourceless; busy, but lacking direction. An ideal candidate, that is, for an ontological freak-out, and likely not too far off the mark as a reflection of her likely readers: middle-class, educated, Trump-hating, ecologically-worried. Just as Dept. of Speculation did with gender, marriage and the art world, Weather takes a good hard look at recent/current politics and our so-called solutions to impending doom. It’s a climate change book, but it’s also addressing how we’re dealing with that, when we’re also dealing with everything else – kids, work, love, sex, break-downs – and in that sense, it’s addressing climate change in the same manner that Ducks, Newburyport addressed gun culture. That is: the world is messy, our lives are messy, but we can’t keep the world out and what do we do about it then? It also reflects the way all this has belatedly struck the West: Lizzie remembers talking to an Iranian friend after 9/11, who tells her, ‘Your people have finally fallen into history. […] The rest of us are already here.’ Lizzie’s personal life, too, reflects this increasing chaos: her non-affair, again, echoes the way her previous book explored infidelity, but here she’s looking at ideas around fantasy and escape, risk and safety, the strange and the familiar – the graft of the fight versus the romance of the flight, perhaps. It’s a very tender and wistful look at human connections, love, friendship and desire, and a sideways glance, too, at the sexualisation of male-female relationships, the connections that may or may not pertain between emotional bonds and sexual desire.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. Stock up on dried goods, flee (by boat) to New Zealand, think about who you want to hole up with in your doomstead, and bring a copy of Weather.

 

 

 

 

 

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