When asked about the best ways to prepare one’s children for the “coming chaos,” the protagonist of Jenny Offill’s new novel Weather responds, “You can teach them to sew, to farm, to build.” Then, more importantly, she adds, “Techniques for calming a fearful mind might be the most useful though.”
As the title suggests, this is a novel about our changing weather, literally and politically: we are in a time of both climate crisis and political crisis. But for a novel of such heady themes — existential malaise and climate guilt, anxiety, and panic — the end result is a treat.
Like Offill’s previous effort, Dept. of Speculation, this is a novel largely of intellectuals faced with marital, professional, and existential discord. Lizzie is a grad school dropout turned librarian who lives with her husband Ben, a video game designer with a PhD in classics, and her precocious son Eli. For a portion of the novel, they are joined by her brother Henry, a recovering addict.
In classic Offill fashion, we are served bite-sized chunks of narrative that pack a punch and short paragraphs that rely on referential points from across disciplines — literature, philosophy, biology, and technology. Which is to say, Offill is again working within the same form she mastered in Dept. of Speculation. Like Dept. of Speculation, Weather is composed of small lyrical truffles, some of which work as standalone pieces, but all of which provoke a sense of deep emotion, of fleeting humor but lasting melancholy.
It is easy to feel like Weather doesn’t hit as hard as Dept. of Speculation, which catapulted Offill into the literary limelight. But that has less to do with any type of slippage in Weather and more to do with the influx of new books that read a lot like Dept. of Speculation — novels composed of short paragraphs that similarly rely on literary quotes, and also theory, seem ubiquitous nowadays.
But there continues to be something special and fresh in reading Offill. Weather feels narratively exciting, despite relying on now-ordinary tools. Part of this can be attributed to how Offill pushes the formal conventions she created in Dept. of Speculation even further. Instead of simply utilizing literary references and aphorisms, Weather relies on more: it is a kaleidoscopic mix of how-to disaster prep guide, reference book, and also — somehow — joke book.
Offill uses the case of Sylvia as an entry point: Sylvia hosts a doomsdayer podcast called Hell and High Water and recruits Lizzie to answer the mail she receives from her end-timer listeners. Weather welcomes Lizzie’s responses and folds them into its narrative. In one instance, for example, we are presented with the following exchange:
Q: What is the philosophy of late capitalism?
A: Two hikers see a hungry bear on the trail ahead of them. One of
them takes out his running shoes and puts them on. “You cannot
outrun a bear,” the other whispers. “I just have to outrun you,” he
Offill also relishes squeezing in facts which often are remarkable in their lyrical yet primal beauty (a favorite: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds”). Moments like these abound in Weather.
In “Under the Weather,” a recent essay published in The Believer, Ash Sanders writes of a new lexicon of words used to describe the “destabilizing experience of living through mass climate change.” According to Sanders, these words include climate panic, eco-anxiety, and climate grief, among many others. Some of these aren’t unfamiliar nowadays, but their origins are fairly recent, and Weather is proof of their growing popularity. Lizzie — like the neoliberals with Pre-TSD from the coming climate apocalypse and the more traditional sort of doomsdayers who fill the pages of Offill’s novel — feels these words acutely. She experiences them so profoundly it’s hard not to endure them yourself as a reader.
Like this new glossary of words, there seems to be a new sub-genre of novel that also engages with the experience of living in our present hellscape. Weather joins the ranks of Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective, and Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, among others — recently published novels set in the post-2016 election, post-Brexit world which intimate a frustration with increasing political and ecological appeasement. These novels that tackle a range of political anxieties are also inextricably tied to our climate anxieties.
Although they confront the idea of an unpleasant future, these novels provoke a sense of hope. Offill especially, for she is both surgical and lyrical with her prose, and succeeds in highlighting the small beauties in our natural world. The result is insightful, a lullaby that soothes the panic that it also invariably stirs. We are living in frustrating times. As Offill asks: “What will be the safest place?” As in, when the world comes to an end, where can we find comfort? I think Offill would agree that, for now, a good place to start is within the pages of literature.
By Jenny Offill
Published February 11, 2020