Review: Jenny Offill's Weather

like all of my favorite art, it's about the end of the world

On Tuesdays, she teaches a meditation class in the basement. It is open to the whole community, not just university people. I’ve noticed that Margot listens differently than I do. She pays attention, but leaves her own stories out of it.

It’s slow today so I help her set up for class. Cushions for the strong, chairs for the weak. “You should stay,” she always tells me, but I never do. Not sure where to sit.

If you’re like me, you may find that art that you love profoundly provokes an odd kind of anxiety, a desire to not risk tainting that which was perfect.

For example, about ten years ago I watched and adored the first two seasons (the first “generation”) of the British show Skins. For whatever reason it caught me at just the right moment and affected me deeply. Just really hit me deep in my heart, as silly as that may seem to you. After I watched those first two seasons, I naturally decided to give the next a try, and I told myself that I wouldn’t get caught up in disappointment when it inevitably didn’t move me as much. And then in the middle of the first episode I just stopped. I was too scared, too nervous that somehow the following seasons would change how I viewed the first. So I turned it off, and I’ve never been tempted to return to it, despite the fact that many fans of the show feel the second generation is the best. I just can’t risk it.

There are plenty of examples I’m not thinking of. I’ve been a Tegan and Sara fan for forever (my favorite album remains The Con) but like seemingly everyone I was immensely charmed by their 2013 album Heartthrob, which saw them embrace upbeat synth pop to great effect. I remember thinking at one point, “I love this album, but I’d hate it if their next one was a stale rehash of the same sounds” - which is exactly what the next one was. It didn’t ruin the previous album for me or anything. But it was the sort of situation where the next album, book, sequel, season influenced how I saw something that was once perfect for me, in a mild but negative way.

It’s for this reason that it took me some time to read Jenny Offill’s Weather, the follow-up to her critically acclaimed second novel, Dept. of Speculation. The acclaim was utterly deserved. I won’t do the tiresome thing of locating the book in my own biography, but it is enough to say that I found it at a profoundly difficult time, and it became a talisman for me when my ability to operate as a minimally functional adult seemed very fragile. That book, too, is fragile, as delicate as an origami crane and just as tightly constructed, a sterling example of how great art starts first as great craft. And I just adore it. It’s wise and sad and written in a remote yet personal voice that feels almost alien in its peculiar and challenging tenderness. I wanted more, but I did not want this perfect thing to be in any way diminished. So I was afraid to read a book I had waited for impatiently for years.

Weather does not diminish anything, to skip ahead a bit. I love it without reservation.

I go into the living room and turn the air conditioner on full blast. Ben thinks it’s wasteful to run it so high. What if we overload the grid? But I am hot and overrule this. I kneel down so I can put my face right in front of it. Once sadness was considered one of the deadly sins, but this was later changed to sloth. (Two strikes then.)

The book tells the tale of Lizzie, a failed grad student turned librarian who enjoys a more or less happy life with her husband Ben and child Eli. (Eli’s age is a little vague to me but likely I just missed it.) The plot, which does not really kick off in any real sense until we’re half of the way through the book, turns on Lizzie’s old academic mentor Sylvia. Now a successful podcaster who spins tales about climate-induced annihilation on her show, she finds herself overwhelmed by the amount of emails her listeners are sending her, listeners whose tastes run to the apocalyptic given the subject matter - some preppers, some End Times Christians, some eco-conscious hippies. So she hires Lizzie to manage them, an example of the warm but condescending relationship Lizzie has with a friend who will forever see her as a failed mentee.

Under the influence of these emails, Lizzie starts to come unglued, the portents of doom seeming to bleed into her own life, into her parenting, her marriage. She maintains a not-entirely-healthy mutual attachment with her addict brother, a recent father, and he has responded poorly to the stress of parenthood. Sylvia, increasingly paranoid, withdraws completely, until Lizzie is answering emails about a show that is not producing new episodes. Through those emails to Sylvia Offill plays most directly with the themes that concern her here, but the threat of the dissolution of Lizzie’s life gestures at that larger fear too, the great coming apart that many of us feel in our bones must be approaching, that sense that floats around in our atmosphere that things cannot just keep going this way.

As in Dept. of Speculation, Offill’s format is to write in a series of vignettes, the overarching story playing out in parentheses as Lizzie thinks her way through the ephemera of life. I suppose that sounds annoying, but that’s only because I’m not as good at writing about Offill’s work as she is at actually writing it. When reading both this novel and its predecessor I thought often of mental path dependence, the way one thought leads to another in the looping and directionless processes that rule the brains we barely understand. Lizzie thinks one thing and we are given witness to the associations that arise from that type of thinking; often these associations are tenuous and counterintuitive, but they are never random. The stuff of the book, its germ and essence, is the way Lizzie’s thoughts arise, even more than the thoughts themselves. Many writers have attempted to capture this kind of digressive representation of what it feels like to live as a conscious mind. Few succeed. Offill succeeds.

Writing fiction in the present tense without seeming precious, too - harder than it looks. Often attempted. Rarely achieved.

Offill’s prose…. There is a contemporary style that I encounter often; I associate it in my mind with women writers more than men, but this may just be an artifact of what I read. Regardless, it’s a style that is, more than anything else, blank - the affect of affectlessness, an attempt at the inert and the unartful. I’m not in the mood to name names, and anyway I’m not here to deride anyone today. It’s just that somewhere in the past decade or so many writers decided that what their work needed was a heavy dose of literary chlorpromazine, to step back from the sweaty exuberance of joyful writing into a place of unthreatening, chic emotional minimalism, every character written as if they have had an exorcism for their most basic passions. These writers write like they, their characters, and their audience have been anesthetized; their novels are the written equivalent of an ASMR video. This probably sounds like I hate this style, but I don’t really. It’s just not for me, I guess. Sometimes it’s very effective, such as if the numb writing balances a frantic story or if the book is about life at the Valium factory. I just wonder where this urge comes from, to exsanguinate one’s writing in this way. I suppose it’s self-defensive at heart.

The point is that at times Offill writes in what might seem in purely formal terms to fit this approach, and yet her exquisite control means that it plays out entirely differently than the work of the blankcore crew. From 10,000 feet, Offill’s writing is not remotely featureless or restrained; she crafts intricate metaphors of precisely the kind your bored MFA instructor told you to always avoid. Her work is peppered with little facts in a way that reminds me, strangely, of Pynchon. And she has no fear of slipping into another layer of abstraction unexpectedly, taking what was previously merely intangible and turning it into something so diffuse it floats off the page like dust. But the vocabulary and references are very disciplined - if anything too ornate appears, it does so to be commented on by Lizzie, to be analyzed, as if in fear of letting anything too fancy roam free. And what is blank here is white as a ghost. In the line-by-line prosecution of conveying Lizzie’s world Offill does not use a single unnecessary letter. That she is able to achieve such emotional and associative complexity from prose that is so pointedly underwritten is remarkable. This writing is not simplistic, nor is it minimalist. But it is austere.

I’m not describing what I mean very well, I’m afraid. I’m usually pretty good at conveying how prose makes me feel, but not so much here. But perhaps this is the point. I admire most in writing that which is least knowable to me. As Udith Dematagoda said, “one of the purposes of good literature is to inculcate a feeling of insufficiency.” As much as any stylist today Offill shows the insufficiency of my understanding as a critic, confounds my expectations of how form becomes function.

He says he’s been having bad thoughts about the baby, that he keeps imagining terrible things. It’s normal, I assure him. I tell him how I used to worry all the time that Eli would choke on a grape. “No, it’s not like that, Lizzie,” he says. “It’s not her. It’s me.”

Later, I keep thinking about those people you read about in the paper, the ones who are discovered by animal protection services. They live in a studio apartment, go to work every day - their neighbors don’t notice a thing - but when they break down the door, there’s an alligator or a boa constrictor in there. Something that could kill them.

I studiously avoided reviews of Weather prior to reading it, would not even glance at the Goodreads page for fear of seeing a particular number of stars. But I did pick up a little about the book through osmosis, and one thing worried me a great deal: that this was a book that connected with current events, and in particular with a certain presidential administration that has inspired some of the worst art we’ve seen in generations. The title is, I take it, a play on what’s become a pop science trope - weather is not climate, and we can’t safely learn about the long-term and abstract story of climate from only observing its short-term and corporeal expression as weather. And yet, in climate and in our lives, the only way to tell the story of the general is from the particular. Lizzie is haunted, and the book is haunted, by climate change. This kind of topicality can be useful, but there are dangers. There is a certain vulgarity that can stem from following the news cycle, particularly partisan politics, which are the most likely to inspire in us the misconception that the profoundly contingent and fleeting is somehow eternal and essential. I wondered how Offill’s craft, so remote and suspended in time, would bear up under contact with the grubby world of now.

She pulls it off beautifully, I think. From Offill I desire neither satire nor polemic - those just aren’t what I want from her work - and thankfully she delivers neither. Her book reflects on Trump’s victory and the attendant misery it brought to the kind of people in Lizzie’s world. (The world of an academic who lives in Brooklyn, that is.) There is no Resistance-era mawkish sincerity here, but neither is there the kind of arch derision that rose up alongside it. Offill portrays the various coping mechanisms liberals deployed against the creeping sense of doom that attended the early Trump years, and some we are invited to sympathize with, others not so much. There is balance, here, equanimity. The impulse to panic has become a central part of liberal self-identity; when they say “this is not normal!” they are demanding that you panic, too. The countervailing force, of which I have been a part, has perhaps been too quick to dismiss that impulse. Perhaps we might have met in the middle, if every technological and cultural structure were not currently aligned to make mutual ridicule our destiny.

What’s needed in a novelist is moral imagination, the capacity to comprehend the feelings which are to our purposeful minds unjustified, sometimes even hysterical. Having read the book I don’t know how Offill feels, exactly, about the legitimacy of post-election liberal panic, and I don’t want to know. That’s to her credit too. This is Trump-era art that knows better than to live too deeply in its own moment. I think I’ll look back at this era and lament that more creators didn’t show as much discipline.

The pieces of glass from a wedding were meant to be saved. If the husband died first, the wife prepared his body for burial by weighing his eyelids down with the shards. If the wife died first, it was the husbands job to do this. I wish I had known this. I wish I had kept those shards.

It is true that Weather was not, for me, as transporting as Dept. of Speculation. As much as the plot is foremost a staging ground for the meticulous exploration of Lizzie’s thoughts and how she thinks them, there is a decent amount of traditional narrative here, and it’s a little plotty. A relationship that develops late in the novel is beautifully rendered but seems at times to exist only to provide tension, choices for Lizzie to make. Which is not to say that I would have preferred that Offill keep the action as minimal as it was in her previous novel; we are not drinking from the same well, here, as the connection to current events drives home, and this kind of evolution is just what I wanted to see. Dept. of Speculation is a treasure, but if Offill continued to apply its ruminative and directionless method to more books, it would cheapen the style. I’m glad she didn’t do that. Still, the snow-globe stillness at the heart of that earlier book hypnotized me in ways few books ever have. There’s more activity here. So with Weather I am forced to settle for gorgeous writing, an unerringly real depiction of the mental self, and a poignant portrayal of an ordinary woman who has less than she wants but all of what she needs until, gradually, she doesn’t.

Beyond the more intricate architecture of the action, I am pleased to say that Lizzie is not the same character as the protagonist of Offill’s previous book. Lizzie is less fragile but more tired than her predecessor, more caustic, more voluble, and a different kind of mother. She thinks in thoughts the other would not think, which is more than I can say for the depictions of internality of many other authors; when they are writing the mind, it is only one mind, usually their own. Unusual for novels that are so relentlessly interior, I have never once thought of either character as being Offill herself. Offill remains, for me, disarmingly remote. I know that there is an intimacy in what she shows us that should suggest vulnerability, but the mind I imagine behind these books (always an invention, of course) is impenetrable.

Which is not to say that I never try to imagine what Offill might be thinking. When I see pictures of her she always looks very sarcastic to me, which is interesting, for though her books have plenty of irony, it is the irony of a gentle person, a wise and thoughtful irony that could only arise from someone who knows the cost of the more popular, more corrosive kind. And Offill’s writing is never sarcastic. Mostly I would call it sad. That is her greatest pleasure to me: I know the sadness that she depicts. It’s my sadness, my own peculiar sheltered sadness, the one I find when the world is quiet enough for my mind to fold over onto itself, its own origami. That may not seem to be much of a compliment, to name a writer the queen of sadness, but for me it is a laurel I could only ever bestow with admiration, to the kind of artists who know that the most secret places inside of us are usually closets of mundane despair.

Perhaps someday I will find that Offill’s method has played itself out, that it has overstayed its welcome. Perhaps. For now I luxuriate in a gorgeous novel that follows a perfect one, a book that wrenches timelessness out of a story about our times. After Dept. of Speculation I read her first novel, Last Things, and quite liked it. But it was clear as I read it that her next book had brought her to a new stratosphere. Weather declares, quietly but with firm insistence, that she belongs and will stay up there, an accomplishment I should have expected from my favorite living novelist.