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In Weather, Jenny Offill tackles the Anthropocene

Weather by Jenny Offill. Knopf, 224 pages.

The year 2017 was a year of slashing. First, it was our part in the Paris Agreement, that mostly inert but monumental vow to keep the global temperature rise below 2°C this century. Then there was the assault on Southern Utah, with its red rock canyons, juniper groves, and countless artifacts of the region’s indigenous people. By executive order, Bears Ears’ territory was slashed by nearly 85 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, another national monument, was reduced by almost 45 percent and separated into three units. The rugged, sacred terrain that, in Bears Ears’ case, had been protected from coal mining and other destructive activities just a year prior was once again made vulnerable to extraction.

This is the kind of regretful squandering—of resources, time, ambition, and land—that underpins Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Weather. The book unfolds along a contracted pre-and-post-2016 election timeline,  just before American media gained a new kind of climate consciousness. Over its six sections, the patina of the Obama years’ naive optimism is gradually eroded by a new mode of paranoid and hostile thinking. The efforts to conserve public lands — not to mention foist talk of climate catastrophe into the mainstream political conversation, however symbolically — are efforts that Sylvia, Weather’s resident doomsday podcaster, “had worked on for years.” Now, just after the election, they have been “swept away with the stroke of a pen.”

At the outset of Weather, though, the tides of everyday existence in New York City still seem manageable. Lizzie, not her former mentor and eventual boss, Sylvia, is our narrator. A librarian at the university from which she failed to earn a graduate degree, Lizzie fields requests from a recognizable cast of academic library patrons: brilliant but pathetic professors, a “doomed adjunct” writing his dissertation into eternity, toilet paper thieves, anti-vaxxers, and anti-capitalists. At home, in the Brooklyn neighborhood known as Little Bangladesh or Little Pakistan, Lizzie and her husband Ben— a classics PhD who spent some hopeless years on the academic job market before he quit and “learned to code” — are raising their animated young son, Eli.

Lizzie’s world is furnished with all the familiar trappings of life in a gentrifying metropolitan area. Her daily moral quandaries are born out of these circumstances and do not initially stray far from them. She tries to avoid run-ins at the “fancy bakery or co-op” with the mother whose remarks about the diversity of their kids’ zoned elementary school teeter on the precipice of outright racism. She tries to take Mr. Jimmy’s car service — at least when she’s too lazy to take the bus — because a “better, faster” company (presumably Uber) is obliterating his business. She tries a new meditation class but giggles at the pseudo-mindfulness of the other people in it, the ones rich enough to take gawky vacations to monasteries. She tries to read all there is to read on the internet about the rapid decline of bird populations. 

The novel’s pacing sometimes teases us into concluding it plotless, and Offill threatens to relegate Lizzie to stock-character status—a figurine in some toy rendition of the white liberal world we expect to see portrayed in a particular strain of contemporary fiction. But she complicates this reading of Lizzie with her longstanding, subterranean commentary on womanhood and mothering. Here, it’s helpful to remember Offill’s 2014 novel, Dept. of Speculation, whose nameless female narrator (referred to in draconian fashion as “the wife”) is also a young mother in New York, where her dedication to family  suffocates her private ambition of becoming a narcissistic “art monster.” Likewise, Lizzie’s preoccupations largely orbit around the wellbeing of other people and things, and her system of self-valuation locates its metric in how well she can preserve what’s around her. In a telling scene, she evokes the muffled anguish of mothering, depicted as a constant dance between the desire for approval and the real task of teaching: 

A few days later, I yelled at [Eli] for losing his new lunch box, and he turned to me and said, Are you sure you’re my mother? Sometimes you don’t seem like a good enough person.

He was just a kid, so I let it go. And now, years later, I probably only think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day.

Here, the dance of Offill’s language is also on display. What registers at first as flippant humor (“I probably think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day”) also delivers a pang of the tragic. This mix of comedy and quiet woe is the novel’s prevailing mood.

What and where does caring get you? What are care’s limits, and who gets to receive it? These are some of Weather’s animating questions, ones whose overlapping implications Offill explores in a variety of contexts, from the interpersonal to the environmental. Lizzie’s constant care-taking offers not only a subtle critique of gendered labor; it is also a crucial component of Weather’s narrative momentum. The novel’s plot, insofar as there is one, reflects the mounting tension around the demands of this work. As Weather progresses, the objects of Lizzie’s care multiply, and the sanctity of her family life is threatened when she becomes increasingly occupied with supervising a brother who struggles with substance abuse, Henry. Henry’s own domestic life is in shambles: his prissy advertising executive wife, Catherine, serves him with divorce papers, and he’s in danger of losing custody of their newborn. Soon, Henry is living in Lizzie’s living room, and her husband and son recede into the background. “Henry is drinking all the milk,” Lizzie laments. “Henry is losing the remote. Henry is mad at Eli for coming into the living room so early. Henry comes back late at night, forgets his key and has to be buzzed in.” 

One of care’s limits, then, is that it’s difficult to scale. Just as we see Lizzie’s vigilance morph into despair and helplessness in the finite space of her family, Offill also demonstrates how a mass network of people can share in this emotional trajectory when Lizzie decides to help her mentor Sylvia answer listener mail for an environmental podcast called Hell and Highwater. Sylvia’s show covers a vast array of anthropocene-spawned issues, its guests speaking often to the adverse effects of industrialization on land and climate. “Many scientists are in a barely suppressed panic about the latest data coming in,” Lizzie says, summarizing one guest’s take. Virtually every episode concludes with some bleak projection of the earth’s imminent end.

What and where does caring get you? What are care’s limits, and who gets to receive it?

Questions pour in from evangelicals, end-timers, environmentalists, and newly concerned citizens alike. “How is the goodness of God manifested even in the clothing of birds and beasts?” reads one question. “How will the last generation know it is the last generation?” reads another. Still others ask about carbon taxes, how to prepare kids “for the coming chaos,” how to bioengineer humans for life on a disintegrated earth. Lizzie answers everything, from practical requests for coping mechanisms and truly unhinged theories about the universe. After the 2016 election, even Sylvia—an earnest if eccentric older woman who has made a life out of lecturing on conservation and climate catastrophe—is overwhelmed by the influx of bad news. “People who do this kind of work will break down,” she says, “people will get sick and die.”

If Hell and High Water’s range of anguished listener mail highlights the varied psychological response to climate change, so does the shape of Offill’s novel. In addition to its thematic overlap, Weather shares many formal tendencies with Dept. of Speculation. The new novel’s paragraphs, too, are short and pithy—what seem at first like aphoristic standalones constellate into some larger meaning. Reading Weather is a constant process of revelation: the “point” of any one vignette isn’t always clear, at least not until many pages later, when another paragraph provides some telling detail, winking back to the first. Oscillations of scale—a description of a hot guy on the bus might proceed one about the anxieties of insufficient doomsday prep—ultimately mimic how impossible it can feel to keep the largeness of the ecological catastrophe constantly in your thoughts. Lizzie, despite her intensifying dread of environmental collapse, still relishes in the small pleasures of the day:  

I take Eli to the playground. Someone walks past with his head down, swiping right, swiping left. The buildings look whitewashed in light. The air smells sweet. Diminishing radiance, but still some, I’d say.

There’s been a host of recent fiction depicting the effects of climate change and otherwise human-caused destruction of the earth, from Barbara Kingslover’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior to Richard Powers’s Pulitzer-winning The Overstory and beyond. But Weather keeps closest company with those like the novels in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, which plays out against Britain’s analogous political and environmental crises. In a 2017 review of Autumn for The Nation, Namara Smith offered a line that’s helpful in situating Weather within this larger literary trend. “Rather than large-scale catastrophe,” she writes, “Smith is interested in the dissonant moments that break into the awareness of people whose lives are not immediately threatened by environmental disaster: plants flowering out of season, winter days that feel like spring, the steady creep of coastal erosion.”

This uncanny observational quality is largely absent from Weather, whose pages are not peppered with the small acts of noticing that make up much of Autumn. But both books attempt to address the creep of climate change into the quotidian; where the characters in Autumn are preoccupied with tallying the current deterioration, those in Weather largely imagine what might still be lost. Offill, too, is writing mostly about people “not immediately threatened” by environmental emergency, though Weather is self-conscious about this notion, hinting frequently at the class dynamics of climate change response. At one point, Lizzie reads about how “the superrich are buying doomsteads in New Zealand.” From the safety of Lizzie’s apartment, Henry watches televised scenes of climate refugees from “an island that is running out of resources.” Sylvia’s efforts, though noble, are predicated on moneyed connections: she courts her wealthiest podcast donors, who are visiting from Silicon Valley, for the funds to found an organization that would “rewild half the earth.” Even the format of Hell and Highwater—a podcast! — feels like a nod to affluent folks’ passive engagement with a range of issues: curated information delivered directly to their ears.

Ultimately, though, Weather neither casts judgment nor parades as some grand call to action. It articulates instead collective anguish for a sick planet and situates this preemptive mourning within the larger matrix of systemic issues — like social injustice, corporate greed, and political ignorance — that will only be further exacerbated by unchecked ecological disaster. Rather than upbraid its privileged protagonists for their despair, the book ultimately registers climate grief as a necessary initial reckoning, an imperfect but generative uneasiness. Indeed, Weather’s own lack of resolve serves to illuminate the importance of sitting with these emotions, suggesting that they might be confronted communally rather than giving way to the nihilism and alienation that climate grief sometimes breeds. The novel’s final lines, delivered in Offill’s elliptical manner, gesture toward this sentiment. Sitting in bed, Lizzie returns to a question that was posed earlier by her meditation teacher: “What is the core delusion?” The core delusion, Lizzie now realizes, “is that I am here and you are there.”