Jenny Offill’s previous novel, Dept of Speculation, was one of my favourite novels of 2015 and this, against some fierce competition, is my Book of the Month for February. Weather is a novel about modern life right now, this minute, with all its attendant anxieties about climate change and the increasingly deranged and dysfunctional political landscape. Weather is narrated by Lizzie Benson, who lives in New York with her husband and child, and works in a library, while offering seemingly endless emotional support to her wayward brother, a former drug addict, and her religious-nut mother. She agrees to help Sylvia, a former mentor and now the host of a doomy podcast "Hell and High Water", who will pay her to answer emails from her increasingly beleagured listeners, who are "skewing evangelical lately" and, as Lizzie observes, are "either crazy or depressed". The novel unfolds in fragments, mirroring Lizzie’s internal thoughts as her mind skitters from one problem to the next. It is, as Granta says, about what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. Short (201pp), expertly crafted and so, so funny. Offill is such a surprising writer and this is an absolute joy.
We now know how to read a few sparse details in a 280-character paragraph and put them together: this reads rather like a tweet, something a clever, deadpan literary person might punt out of a morning to give us all a laugh and a shiver of fond recognition... Because Lizzie seems so unnervingly close to us, and because the bad news is seen glancingly, the way we might look at the sun, all of this feels real and near. As she teases us, perhaps our “core delusion is that I am here and you are there”, and there is no comforting fiction in this book at all, only terrifying facts about ecological disaster and encroaching fascism. Perhaps all our clever chat, like all Lizzie’s talk, will get us nowhere. It’s an alarming prospect – reading Weather made me grind my teeth at night, just like its narrator – but it is certainly a brilliant exemplar for the autofictional method. Offill pulls us in close in order to make us worry about things outside us; mirrors the self to show us what we are selfishly ignoring.
Feeling worried about climate change has now been recognised as a legitimate mental health issue. If you suffer from it, you might find Jenny Offill's excellent third novel tips you over the edge...
Using her characteristic, epigrammatic prose style that's both jittery and deadpan at the same time, Offill presents us with a wryly funny state-of-the-nation novel wired to the hilt with a dread that'll infect your dreams.
As with her previous novel, the paragraphs in Weather are each a kind of koan, some short, some long, all of them containing a piece of central, organising wisdom. Penelope Fitzgerald was the queen of the innocuously devastating aphorism; Offill has inherited her crown. Again and again her sentences resonate powerfully, drawing you in with their humour before sideswiping you with their veracity. At one point Lizzie tells us that she’s “always had an obsession with lost books, all the ones half written or recovered in pieces”. She doesn’t say why, but I think it’s because these “half-written” books require the participation of the reader to complete their story. In Weather, we construct a whole from the pieces Offill gives us, and find that we hold in our hands a truly remarkable novel, perhaps the most powerful portrait of Trump’s America yet.
In Weather, the accumulation of all these moments of intense attention combine to create a powerful simulation of the current cultural atmosphere. As a barometer of how it feels to live now, Offill is so sensitive, she makes most other writers look like they’re still using catgut to predict the rain.
There’s something faintly miraculous about how Offill gets us from there to here; baby steps from instagrammable anecdotes to a weightiness you can feel in your stomach. It’s all about those just-so details, which keep the reader sitting upright and give the good-value impression — up, down, funny, shocking — of two books for the price of one.
Weather achieves a rare triumph – it’s an uncannily realistic portrait of what it’s like to be alive right now. And, of course, where there’s life, there’s hope. This is a book about coming to terms with your helplessness. It’s about desperately wanting to do something, not knowing quite what, but trying anyway (“What it means to be a good person, a moral person, is calculated differently in times of crisis than in ordinary circumstances,” Sylvia reminds us). It’s about wanting and trying to protect the people you love, but instead slowly having to face the fact that you might not even be able to protect yourself.
It’s not all Weltschmerz, however. Like Dept of Speculation, Weather is, as Offill once put it, “funny as well as sad”. When Lizzie takes her son to a dollar store, he asks: “Who made all these things?” “The Invisible Hand,” she replies.
Offill also rewards her narrator with a nice line in homespun wisdom about relationships. A series of (chaste) encounters with a handsome war reporter that she allows herself when Ben is away prompts the following reflection: “Funny how when you’re married all you want is to be anonymous to each other again, but when you’re anonymous all you want is to be married and reading together in bed.”
I read Dept. of Speculation and now Weather with hungry recognition. The resonance between the world she describes and the one I live in is so emphatic that reading her can feel like having my own interior narrative externalised – a disarming sensation that is a mark of her craft.What has changed in Weather? The child is a boy, not a girl. The narrator has a name this time: Lizzie. Her orbit has expanded to include not just child and husband (called Ben), but a drug-addicted brother, a Bible-thumping mother and an intellectual mentor as well. And the nature of the existential dread has shifted. This time the horror is not only of an unfulfilled self (the demands of care have yanked Lizzie from her vocation as a therapist to working in a library), but also of an extinguished world. The title is a nod to climate change; thoughts of environmental cataclysm punctuate Lizzie’s thoughts and consequently the novel.
As with Offill’s last novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” “Weather” is written not so much in consecutive paragraphs of narration but in often square blocks of text, each set off by white space, as if they were stanzas. They’re the work of a curator who likes a spare hang. Each paragraph is a little lonely, like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting.... Offill has genuine gifts as a comic novelist. “Weather” is her most soulful book, as well. Lizzie’s relationship with her brother delivers heartbreak after heartbreak. She’s pretty funny about him, too. “‘Where did all these hipsters come from?’ says my brother in his fleece-lined trucker’s jacket.” Offill’s humor is saving humor; it’s as if she’s splashing vinegar to deglaze a pan.
Weather is written in episodic vignettes, between a sentence and paragraph long. Offill’s fragmented style first emerged in Dept. of Speculation, salvaged from the ruins of a more conventional infidelity novel that had received an underwhelming response from publishers. At the suggestion of a poet friend, she wrote a hundred of the best bits on index cards and shuffled them around. She ended up with a jagged, elliptical story about a woman who longs to be an “art monster” – someone who puts her art before everything else – but finds herself saddled with a collapsing marriage, frustrating motherhood and work obligations.