In July, Jenny Offill came to Amsterdam. Her goal was to find some peace and quiet to work on her next book. Instead, she spent an evening on a master class for the International Writers’ Collective, where I got to interview her. We talked about the joys and pitfalls of her style of fragmentary writing and how research and writing go hand in hand. All this in relation to her novel, Weather.
The star of Weather is Lizzie. We watch her stumble through life and the onset of the end-times. Here she is, lost in thought about the meaning and morality of assortative mating.
So I tell my brother how Ben and I never notice the same things. Like that time I came home and he was all excited because they finally took it down. Took what down? I asked. And he had to explain that the scaffolding that had covered the front of our building for three years was finally gone. And then last week, when I was telling him a story about the guy from 5C, he said, Wait, what drug dealer?Jenny Offill, Weather (Granta 2020)
A Porous Soul
Lizzie leads a dead end life. If the end-times were upon her, I’m not sure she’d know the difference. She works as a librarian, a first responder of sorts, to emotional and psychological disasters. The adjunct professor who isn’t allowed a key to his own classroom and may be selling his plasma to afford food. The graduate student with the fingernails bitten to the quick and all the library toilet paper stuffed into her backpack. And these are just the strangers.
Her husband and son need Lizzie, too. As do her mother, her brother, her sister-in-law and their brand new baby. All these bodies pile onto an already fragile Lizzie expecting her to bear their burdens. Together, they careen from one crisis to the next, while Lizzie circulates her credit cards in the hopes that they haven’t maxed out yet.
During her master class, Offill describes Lizzie as having a porous soul, just as Offill herself has. She has gifted to Lizzie many of her own past occupations.
Lizzie was once a graduate student. She used to have potential. When her former mentor learns of Lizzie’s situation, she tries to help.
Sylvia comes by the library. “I have a proposal for you,” she says. She wants to pay me to answer her email. There’s a lot of it these days because of the podcast. She’s been answering it herself, but she can’t keep up anymore.
I ask her what sorts of things she gets. All kinds, she tells me, but everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed. We need the money for sure, but I tell her I have to think about it. Because it’s possible my life is already filled with these people.
The podcast is called Hell and High Water. Its central theme, though Offill never names it, is the climate crisis. The questions Lizzie must answer range from carbon taxes, wind turbines, to the Rapture. As in, why should I care about climate change when the Lord calls me to his side? Sylvia warns Lizzie, any podcast with the word hell in it is bound to attract the end-timers.
Laughing in the wind
Novice writers sometimes think that, if a scene is dramatic, it needs dramatic language, exclamation points and, above all, lots of adverbs. Offill is no novice. Weather is her third novel, following on the heels of the highly acclaimed Dept. of Speculation and her debut, Last Things. Offill knows that, when the narrative goes grim, humor helps.
In her master class, Offill speaks of how humor can lighten the mood for the reader so they can soldier on. Humor can also be a character trait as it is for Lizzie. Deadpan comedy is Lizzie’s survival mechanism. In Weather, sometimes, the humor is just plain funny as here, my favorite joke.
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 can’t outrun a bear,” the other whispers. “I just have to outrun you,” he says.
To distract, lighten, or texture the narrative, Offill interjects outside voices throughout Weather. They are the product of what I like to think of as a patented Research Methodology. Offill calls it magpie-like. Oh, I like that shiny thing over there! Offill reads widely, extravagantly one might say, judging from the range of books cited in the notes to Weather.
The human condition
Once the 2016 US presidential elections take place, the dread in Weather becomes palpable. It’s been there all along, under the surface of Lizzie’s financial precariousness and her brother’s drug addiction. Her husband’s reaction to the 2016 elections feels so familiar. The urge to do something and the inability to make any real change.
After the election, Ben makes many small wooden things. One to organize our utensils, one to keep the trash can from wobbling. He spends hours on them. “There, I fixed it,” he says.
The real dread kicks in as Lizzie emerges from her “twilight knowledge” of the climate crisis. This is a state of being I recognize. To know intellectually that a climate crisis is upon us but not to feel it in my bones.
Weather does not attempt to explain climate science. It is not intended to change minds. Offill proudly announces that there is only one number in the entire novel. It is the year 2047 when New York City will enter into climate departure, i.e. “a state never seen before, outside of the bounds of historical variability and short-term extremes.”
Weather tracks Lizzie’s emergence from “twilight knowledge” about the climate crisis into a full-blown, visceral awareness of the effects in her own lifetime and that of her son’s. It is a process that Offill underwent during her research for this novel. In an interview in 2020 with The Guardian, Offill said, “I no longer felt like I could opt out. I no longer felt like it wasn’t my fight.”
During the pandemic, Weather enjoyed a strange spurt of popularity. Readers found Offill to be weirdly prescient about life in lockdown. At least one podcast looked to Offill for some shred of hope.
Offill took a risk in Weather by projecting its last two sections into the then future of the 2020 US presidential elections. She tried to write these final dozen pages so that would make sense no matter the outcome.
I suspect, however, that Offill was not feeling very optimistic about the American dream when she finished writing Weather. And, indeed with the hindsight of the 2022 US Supreme Court session, her dread was well warranted.
Ben and I made a list of requirements for our doomstead: arable land, a water source, access to a train line, high on a hill. Are we on a hill for floods or defense? Both. I’ll build a moat, he said, then went on the internet to learn how to do it.
Weather closes on what I thought to be a joke. Throughout the novel, Sylvia complains about the “obligatory note of hope” that climate scientists are compelled to give whenever they try to tell hard truths. To find an url with this same name had to be Offill’s idea of a funny.
Instead, https://obligatorynoteofhope.com/ offers ways to become informed (“Tips for Trying Times”) or get involved. Obligatory Note is separate from Offill’s own author website. And while Offill emphasizes that Weather is not a political novel, she doesn’t make the same disclaimer for Obligatory Note.
If you’re interested in hearing Jenny Offill’s master class to the International Writers’ Collective, watch this page. Her podcast should be published in mid-September 2022.
28 July 2022 | Karen Kao