Weather by Jenny Offill

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.”