Doomstead Reading

Jenny Offill, Weather

Granta Books, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781783784769

reviewed by Dominic O'Key

March 2020. This was the month our world changed. As a country, we have by and large kept calm and carried on, following the same stiff-upper-lip stubbornness and conspiratorial suspiciousness that made it impossible for the Labour Party to win the 2019 election. My grandparents email me obviously fake ‘news’ items (‘Hold your breath for 10 seconds. If you can do it, you don’t have the virus!’; ‘Is COVID-19 a bio-attack?’). Each new conspiracy has been forwarded to them in 30-person-strong chains. The English have long been gripped by psychopathologies. But it’s grim to see the world around us continue so unthinkingly when the pavement is crumbling beneath our feet.

On Friday, I go mad. On Saturday, I resolve to defeat my madness. I think I’ve killed it, but the ghost of my madness returns on Sunday afternoon. I read everything. I learn an entire new vocabulary. I listen to dispatches from Italy, watch videos from Spain, check in with friends in Portugal. I scroll Twitter endlessly. And I’m accompanied every step of the way by Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather.

Weather revolves around a university librarian, Lizzie. She’s a wife to a husband who works in IT, a mum to a young son, and a sister to a brother recovering from addiction. Lizzie is middle-aged and middle-class, with middle-of-the-road liberal humanist political inclinations. She’s a failed grad student and a big-time worrier who attends meditation classes to stay sane. From the library help desk, she locates books for a ‘doomed adjunct’ who’s been working on his dissertation for over a decade. She accepts library fines from a man in a shabby suit happy to contribute to the institution’s reserves. She suffers cranky professors (‘I swear the ones with tenure are the crankiest’) and patrons’ ‘theories’ about vaccinations. The library manager gives her a book: Tips for Dealing with Problem Patrons.

The plot kicks into gear when Lizzie accepts the offer of a part-time job from her former teacher, Sylvia. Sylvia hosts a popular climate change podcast, Hell and High Water, which receives hundreds of eco-anxious emails from listeners. ‘Everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed.’ Progressives ask whether it’s OK to have a child. Freedom-loving mid-westerners ask about doomsday preparations. Sylvia’s inbox is out of control. She wants Lizzie to act as the podcast’s designated respondent. Scrolling the inbox, Lizzie is shocked by the spectrum of possible responses to climate change. She’s struck by the cacophony and antagonism of people’s questions: ‘Lots of questions about the Rapture mixed in with the ones about wind turbines and carbon taxes.’ ‘Does extinction matter since we know how the Bible ends? Who invented contrails? How will the last generation know it is the last generation?’ ‘I swear the hippie letters are a hundred times more boring than the end-timer ones,’ Lizzie reflects.

As the novel’s primary narrator and protagonist, Lizzie functions as a cipher or conduit for the contradictory attitudes and positions of our nervous present. Accompanying Sylvia on her podcasting tours, Lizzie listens to ‘lots of people who are not Native Americans talking about Native Americans.’ She sees numerous men approach Sylvia with ‘a question and a comment.’ And at a ‘swanky dinner with some people visiting from Silicon Valley,’ two ‘techno-optimists’ in Gore-Tex jackets talk at length about genetic engineering and de-extinction. Through Lizzie, then, Offill gives us a kind of bearing-witness-to-climate-anxiety from the standpoint of modest privilege. And, as this bearing witness continues, Lizzie comes to immerse herself more and more in ‘prepper’ culture. She learns prepper acronyms – DTA (Don’t Trust Anyone), FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt), BSTS (Better Safe than Sorry) – and plans out her ‘doomstead’ for the dark times ahead. As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates around me, I imagine how it will soon turn all of us into preppers.

At two hundred pages, Weather feels very slight. Offill opts for brevity rather than verbosity, as if the book were written in deliberate contrast to that other novel of American liberal anxieties, Lucy Ellmann’s thousand-page Ducks, Newburyport (2019). Like Offill’s previous book, Dept. of Speculation (2014), Weather is written in discontinuous, fragmentary prose, composed of short forms like anecdotes, dicta, maxims, aphorisms, and witticisms. Think diary entries and found phrases, rendered with quietly biting deadpan punchlines. Each short paragraph is either narrated by Lizzie, lifted from another text (there’s a bibliography at the end), or is one of her witty replies to the climate podcast emails; these amusing asides are often enclosed in dotted boxes on the page.

Offill’s clipped text fragments, polyphonous and contradictory, offer a light and gentle reading experience. Yet they also perform all the novel’s heavy lifting, simultaneously delivering the plot and sustaining the narration. In this sense, it’s possible to read the novel’s paratactic style as an attempt to formally express the blustery weather of American life. Lizzie wonders why it is that three different people put up flyers about beekeeping in the library. Her colleague, Lorraine, shrugs: ‘Some things are in the air, they float around.’ If ‘some things are in the air,’ then Weather marks an attempt to capture them on the page. For Offill, prose becomes weather: changing, airy, composed of numberless individual elements. Spare but stormy.

Reviewers have lauded the novel for its illuminating portrayal of our contemporary moment. In the New York Times, for example, Leslie Jamison writes that the real achievement of Weather is its preoccupation with the apocalyptic horizon of climate change and the miniature apocalypses of daily life. As Jamison elegantly puts it, Weather explores how a woman – a mother, a sister, a worker – deals with the ‘simultaneity of daily life and global crisis.’ It has quickly become a cliché to argue that contemporary fiction is not sufficiently addressing climate change. Amitav Ghosh’s lectures on the novel form’s failure to ‘think’ climate change are now five years old. As much as novels tend not to represent climate change, it’s equally as true that every single novel written today cannot not be a novel of climate change. Weather very much knows it is a climate novel. However, by focusing on Lizzie’s daily fears and trepidations about climate change, rather than on the effects of global heating itself, Offill cleverly dramatises the everyday creep of climate worry that goes unnoticed by some but is deeply felt by others. With its preference for polyphony and parataxis over exposition, Weather registers rather than represents climate collapse.

Yet there are problems here. Offill’s aphoristic paragraphs don’t work through psychological problems in the same depth as, say, Maggie Nelson’s books do. And the parables aren’t nearly as sharp and weird as Sheila Heti’s. Worse, the jokes often land flat. It’s also notable that Offill, speaking in book-promotion interviews, has insisted that she does not use social media. Regardless of whether this is true or not, Weather is extremely aesthetically suited to having its passages snapped, cropped and shared. A cursory Twitter search confirms that its readers are doing exactly this. One passage, quoted in numerous tweets, reads: ‘There is a period after every disaster in which people wander around trying to figure out if it truly is a disaster. Disaster psychologists use the term “milling” to describe most people’s default actions when they find themselves in a frightening new situation.’ The accompanying tweet says that this sheds light on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Offill’s short paragraphs don’t just record the ‘weather’ of anxious podcast listeners who worry about heat death, economic collapse and climate conflict. Weather also forecasts the polarised climate of American social life under a weakening neoliberal hegemony. In one scene, Lizzie’s friend, a first-generation Iranian immigrant, tells her that the reason she feels so lost in the current moment is because now, for the first time in her life, she has ‘fallen into history. The rest of us are already here.’ In another, Lizzie and her husband watch the election results roll in. ‘To the yours-to-losers, to the both-the-samers, to the wreck-it-allers. Happy now?’ Outing herself as a Hilary enthusiast, Lizzie confesses that her world, previously thought to be ordered and safe, is growing chaotic: ‘My #1 fear is the acceleration of days,’ Lizzie says. ‘No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.’

Weather ends with a link to a real website, ironically titled The website offers links to activist groups, so-called ‘people of conscience,’ and tips for surviving dark times. ‘Aren’t you tired of all this fear and dread?’ it asks. Our reading of Weather changes as we click through this website. It’s obvious enough that Offill doesn’t intend for her readers to fall in love with Lizzie. In a similar vein to Dept. of Speculation, Weather gives us a narrator whose mild egoistic impulses warn readers not to take her too seriously. But neither is it clear that the novel compels its readers to criticise Lizzie. By and large, Offill depicts Lizzie as someone who’s really just trying her best as history accelerates around her. The website’s sharp question – ‘aren’t you tired of all this fear and dread?’ – is undoubtedly pointed at the Lizzies (the Offills?) of the world. Even so, the gap between individualised worry and collective power is much wider than the gap between Weather’s pages and its website suggests.

Dominic O'Key is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, where he writes about the literary and cultural meanings of the sixth extinction.