Always some great disaster

Jenny Hayes

March 10, 2020

Jenny Offill’s new book Weather is brief yet expansive: short enough to read in a day, but lingers much longer. I keep finding myself contemplating its ideas as if it were a self-help tome, or pondering some of the facts I learned from its pages as if it were a nonfiction analysis. And yet Weather is neither of these: it’s a novel, and one so suited for our present moment that, as with the individual fragments that combine to create the book’s narrative, it somehow accrues a greater resonance. In an era where so much feels mired in the zone between turbulent and bleak, Weather heightens awareness while also offering an ethereal sort of solace.

The title works on many levels. I mean, the weather: what’s more of a small-talk cliché? But weather can also be the most important thing in the world, with the power to disrupt life in harrowing ways. There’s also our narrator Lizzie’s individual weather system—the conditions that fill the metaphorical air around her as she navigates her own life. While the coming emergency looms large, it still feels distant for Lizzie. Like all of us, she has her own personal crises to deal with, along with various slow-moving phenomena that will in time have their own indelible effects. Lizzie will have to ride it all out, or, if you prefer, to weather it.

“What will happen to the American weather?”

“What will be the safest place?”

“What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?”

The listeners of the Hell and High Water podcast have a lot of unanswerable questions, Lizzie discovers after taking a job with its host, her former professor Sylvia. They all seem to be searching for some kind of apocalypse loophole, or an idea of what’s in store.

Along with fielding listener mail and accompanying Sylvia to lectures about the impending decline of civilization, Lizzie also has family members to contend with, particularly her recovering-addict brother, Henry. The two are close, and Lizzie spends a lot of time with him, sometimes to the annoyance of her husband, Ben. "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,” she notes while her husband and kid are out of town, as she begins to drink a bit too much and flirts with the possibility of an affair — as if to change her own personal weather, exerting some kind of autonomy in the face of the larger paralyzing doom that no one can control.

As with her last novel, 2014’s Dept. of Speculation, Offill uses a playful, minimalistic style. Short paragraphs float on generous pillows of whitespace. Scenes are compressed, sometimes to a single sentence; sprinkled among them are quotes, statistics, jokes, and other mysterious nuggets. Offill is a master at curating and synthesizing disparate pieces, assembling them to create richness that a more straightforward narrative can’t easily achieve.

As the book progresses, its fractured kaleidoscope structure does more than just build up the pieces of Lizzie’s individual life. Ideas started in one place reappear many pages later; sentences resonate in the mind and take on new layers of significance as the book progresses. Lizzie complains that her brother likes movies where “there is always some great disaster about to happen and only one unlikely person who can stop it”; by the time these movies are referenced again, the great disaster doesn’t feel so imaginary (though sadly, the one unlikely hero still does). Later, Lizzie says: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to stop making bad decisions. The weird thing is they don’t sneak up on me. I can see them coming all the way down the pike.” She’s referring to her own life, but the sentiment feels as applicable to humanity as a whole.

Here’s a small collage-like section about the 2016 election and its harrowing aftermath:

The path is getting . . . narrower. That’s how Ben told me. He was doing the math in his head.

But it could still . . . ?
It’s not impossible.

And so we stayed up and watched until the end.

At school, Eli’s friend boasts that he will kill the president using a lightsaber. Then he says no, a throwing star is better. My son comes home upset. His friend is going about things the wrong way, he thinks. “What is the right way?” I ask him.

Dig a trap, cover it with leaves.

Though fictional, this part of the book captures so well the desperation of that time — that sense of not knowing what would come next, but that it would probably be terrifying. My body tensed while reading, from the still-visceral memory of those first few days and because there’s something similar in the air right now. The primary election feels fraught and perilous. Whispers of a global pandemic are turning into shouts. And our president always has some fresh new horror up his sleeve. This dynamic seems like part of our weather now. Some days are heavier than others, and we get the occasional sunbreak, but it never seems to stay for long.

Of course, that feeling wasn’t invented in 2016:

It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at the diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already there.

For many, being shocked and blindsided by terrible events is an exception; it’s a sign of a privileged existence never to have felt that hum. Even the climate crisis is mostly theoretical, or at least eventual; it affects Lizzie’s psyche more than her actual life. Could it even be a comfort somehow, remembering how many horrors humanity has already withstood? Let’s let Sylvia answer:

… But hasn't the world always been going to hell in a handbasket? I ask her. Parts of the world, yes, but not the world entire, she said.

It’s pouring when I come out of the subway station. There’s a low hum in my heads. “Boohoo,” says the friendly-looking white man who passes me on the street. “Boohoo!”

Am I crying?

Later, Lizzie ponders how to “channel all of this dread into action,” something I found achingly familiar. And while Offill doesn’t exactly answer this question, a few hints are scattered throughout like breadcrumbs. Some of these come from the Buddhist teachings of Margot, a yoga instructor who urges Lizzie and the rest of the class to “accept the feeling of groundlessness without existential fear” and offers up a formula: “suffering = pain + resistance.” Another approach comes through her brother’s struggle to stay sober. Might it help if Lizzie takes the Serenity Prayer to heart and tries to accept the things she cannot change, change the things she can, and try to figure out the difference? Action and acceptance, care and witness, freakout and surrender — we’re probably going to need them all.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Weather doesn’t exactly wrap things up in a happy ending. How could it? Lizzie hasn’t seen how things will turn out, and neither have we.

In the meantime, echoes of the book’s themes keep turning up. I happened upon an article about psychologists treating patients with climate anxiety by proposing the patients take action ( to help both the symptoms and the cause). After that, I was struck by a quick mention in a literary essay of the paradoxical combination of hope and despair that is necessary in addiction recovery, and how getting better is both harder and more worthwhile than staying unwell. A cancer patient’s social media post expressed fear about their future, while trying to remember that they still have a present. I came across an essay that presented a challenge to rethink “the apocalypse” in terms of its etymological meaning, “lifting of the veil.” And another random click led to a worry that there’s not yet enough art that’s willing to grapple with this impending catastrophe.

The material of Weather is all around us; it’s the very weather we’re living in now.

Books in this review:
  • Weather
    by Jenny Offill
    February 11, 2020
    224 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Jenny Hayes is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at U.C. Riverside - Palm Desert. Her writing has appeared in Hobart, Geometry, Spartan, Jenny Magazine, and other interesting places.

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