Weather, by Jenny Offill. Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York, 2020. $23.95, 224 pages.
Sometimes a novel comes along out of nowhere and shocks you and shatters your heart. A few years back, one of those novels was Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, a novel about a marriage. The premise seemed simple but through Offill’s elegant, fragmented storytelling, simple it was not. It was an exquisite and heartbreaking tale taking a couple from the early days of their young love through the ups and downs that turn turbulent. It’s masterly in its precision and I wolfed it down in one sitting.
Her newest novel, Weather, is about Lizzie, a librarian at her would be alma mater. She dropped out years before to take care of her strung out brother. Her mentor Sylvia is the reason she is back at the university where she approaches Lizzie to help her write responses to letters from listeners of her podcast about the end of the world, Hell or High Water. Through her responses and research, Lizzie becomes obsessed with the approach doomsday.
The first half of the novel has Lizzie observing the library’s clientele, still taking care of her brother so he doesn’t relapse and every day dealings with her husband and son. These observations and daily undertakings are given through the little burst-like paragraphs. Weathertakes many cues from Dept. of Speculation in it’s structure but whereas the first novel was mainly about two characters, Offill opens this novel up to an expanded worldview.
She says so much about character and place in these short paragraphs. Some of Lizzie’s observations:
“My brother told me once that he missed drugs because they made the world stop calling him. Fair enough, I said. We were at the supermarket. All around us things tried to announce their true nature. But their radiance was faint and fainter still beneath the terrible music.”
“That night, Eli calls to us hysterically from the kitchen. There’s a mouse skull under the sink, he says. I give Ben a dark look. We are killing them secretly, I thought…He gets down on his knees to look under the sink. But it is only a knob of ginger and we are saved.”
“But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password for his own email? I try to explain that it is not possible for me to know this, that only he knows this, but he just shakes his head in that indignant way that means, what kind of help desk is this?”
Offill brilliantly captures moments like these in each of her novels that become more than just the moment itself. Some novels take pages and pages to do what Offill distills into a mere paragraph. Like in Dept. of Speculation, these moments open up into a small history and story of the who, what, where and why of the situation.
As Weather moves into the second half, the tone becomes much darker and more urgent. Lizzie continues to respond to the questions from Sylvia’s listeners. She often gives tongue-in-cheek responses.
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.
Q: Do angels need sleep?
A: It is unlikely though we cannot be completely sure.
Lizzie becomes obsessed with the end times through the podcast questions receives. Her husband Ben joins in the obsession after ‘the’ election. The two start to research where the best place to buy land would be, thinking about buying in bulk, watching shows about stockpiling food and essentials. And in one scary moment, “Should we get a gun?” Ben asks. Eventually,
Ben and I made a list of requirements for our doomstead. Arable land, 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 to the internet to learn how to do it.
Offill builds incredible tension throughout the second half of the novel by returning the focus back to the family and their plans for doomsday. The urgency of the second half had me glued to my seat until I was finished.
Offill packs so much into such a slim volume because she uses words spectacularly. Weather,uses the same writing techniques as Dept. of Speculation with it’s short, sharp paragraphs. The new novel expands to a larger worldview from Dept. of Speculation’ s more intimate story. And like her last novel, it’s often funny, always wise and in the end, shattering.
Please note that this review and any quotations were taken from an unedited copy of the novel.
John Morrow is a freelance film + video producer and stylist based in Brooklyn, NY. You can also find more book related content on @whatisjohnnyreading on Instagram.