How do you reconcile personal turmoil with catastrophes that loom beyond the horizon? The feeling of the world ending—just not here and not yet—animates Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. It’s a mood piece, an almanac of anxieties private, public, and cosmic. The fragmentary, diaristic style will be familiar to readers of Offill’s 2014 breakthrough, Dept. of Speculation (or one of its literary antecedents, Renata Adler’s Speedboat). Imagine Lydia Davis crossed with Spalding Gray, or La Rochefoucauld as a Brooklyn mom. Offill is funny and her novels cohere in the tissue of her wit and intelligence more than in the armature of narrative and plot. Much of Weather, like her previous book, consists of aphorisms, anecdotes, bits of wisdom, and one-liners. Its deep subject is the muddle, not quite the crisis, of midlife. The reader is not swept along but springs from fragment to fragment. (“Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do does?”)
Weather inhabits a limbo between personal disappointment and societal doom. Its narrator, Lizzie, lives in Brooklyn with her husband and grade-school-aged son. Husband and wife are both disappointed academics. He was a classicist until he gave up on tenure and learned to code. She wrote half a dissertation titled “The Domestication of Death: Cross-Cultural Mythologies,” which left her with an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient proverbs of a morbid variety. Native American lore, the monks of Mount Athos, and the austere early Christian Desert Fathers of Egypt are her favorites. “Eat straw, wear straw, sleep on straw” goes one Desert Father’s maxim. “That is to say, despise everything and acquire for yourself a heart of iron.” But Lizzie’s heart is hardly metallic. She takes care of everyone around her: “I wish you were a real shrink,” her husband remarks. “Then we’d be rich.”
Imagine Lydia Davis crossed with Spalding Gray, or La Rochefoucauld as a Brooklyn mom.
Lizzie has a mother living elsewhere on a fixed income, and a brother close to home recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. It was his breakdown that caused her to drop out of grad school and come to the rescue. Now she’s a university librarian, and the library where she works is a theater of desperation: elderly patrons forgetting their passwords, students addled by their devices, adjuncts at the end of their rope. She has a side gig answering listener e-mails for a popular podcast called Hell and High Water, hosted by her erstwhile academic mentor Sylvia. She meets and flirts with a journalist who shares her apocalyptic anxieties about climate change. People are drawn to Lizzie, who seems to project a surfeit of empathy. We see the way it drains her.
All of these characters have their own subplots, but Weather is a novel about events that never quite transpire. The flirtation never leads to an affair, Lizzie’s marriage doesn’t fall apart, the addict brother relapses but survives (though his marriage does dissolve). The 2016 election occurs about halfway through Weather. It heightens the tensions, causes neighbors to stop speaking to each other, and exacerbates climate angst. Hateful screeds start appearing on the bulletin board at the library, and Lizzie and a friend debate whether “new hate has been unleashed” or “the amount of hate is exactly the same as it’s always been,” just now more noticeable.
Shaken by the listener mail she spends a lot of her time answering, Lizzie goes from being a “doomer” to a “prepper,” ready for the end of the world, though this obsessive behavior involves little more than looking at a lot of alarmist Web sites. Her brother has a similar habit of watching videos of disasters involving boats full of migrants and worries if he’d be able to lead his young daughter to safety if disaster ever struck Brooklyn. The unease is hardly confined to Lizzie and her Brooklyn milieu. A dinner party of Silicon Valley moguls quiz her and Sylvia about the best places to go to await the end of the world in relative safety. It turns out that wealth doesn’t make people more civil. As Sylvia remarks, “These people long for immortality but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee.”
The characters in Weather suffer from a climate-inflected strain of Trump Derangement Syndrome, but the novel itself does not. It’s the best fictional account, within its own limits, that I’ve so far encountered of what it feels like to live through this lousy little epoch. Lizzie’s predicament seems to me particular to Gen Xers reaching early middle age, where marriages are in a rut and children are on the verge of tweenhood. The generation that was apathetic and cynical in its youth now finds itself burdened with responsibilities but without the bounty that flowed to their parents in the long postwar boom. Rabbit was rich, but Lizzie is anxious. Wedged between the much more numerous millennials and boomers, Gen X’s calling cards have been Prozac, precarity, and powerlessness. No wonder, then, that its writers are now furnishing us with a literature of black humor and floating dread.
Christian Lorentzen is a writer who lives in Brooklyn