wed 30/09/2020

Jenny Offill: Weather review - the low hum of misgiving | reviews, news & interviews

Jenny Offill: Weather review - the low hum of misgiving

Jenny Offill: Weather review - the low hum of misgiving

Offill's third novel is a subtle portrait of the current climate of dread and bewilderment

Jenny OffillPhoto by © Emily Tobey

Neatly contained, truncated by decisive white space, Jenny Offill’s paragraphs – they have been called “fragments” and even “stanzas” – might be the first thing you notice about Weather, if you are new to her writing.

Neatly contained, truncated by decisive white space, Jenny Offill’s paragraphs – they have been called “fragments” and even “stanzas” – might be the first thing you notice about Weather, if you are new to her writing. Sometimes they are pithy, aphoristic; mostly they stretch to the extent of a vivid vignette, and the logic that links them is not necessarily linear, but spatial, as they slip from observation to joke to anecdote to rehearsals of Q&As and facts carefully collected like objet trouvés, although the gaps between them never feel abrupt. 

The “plot” happens in the interruptions between these asides: in the blanks, the silences. MeToo and Trump’s election are never named as such, but they take place quietly in the background while “life” moves propulsively around Lizzie Benson, Offill’s protagonist. She is a librarian, mother of one, sister to a recovering drug addict, “fake shrink” to those around her, including, most recently, listeners to her former PhD tutor Sylvia’s podcast, Hell and High Water. She reminds herself “(as I often do) never to become so addicted to drugs or alcohol that I’m not allowed to use them.” With a resigned endurance, she worries a lot: Mr. Jimmy and his failing car service business, bus etiquette, “the acceleration of days”, but mostly the impending climate catastrophe, learning “prepper” skills like how to “Start a Fire with Gum Wrapper and a Battery” and “What to Do If You Run Out of Candles”. Still, she maintains a wry sense of humour: when her brother Henry is worrying that he sold his soul to the devil as a child, she retorts “‘Okay, but think, Henry, what did you get for it?’”.

Weather by Jenny Offill

The book is that enviable achievement of managing to be both very funny and very serious. Offill cannily captures the anxious yet ambivalent ambience of late capitalism: hypervigilance, constant flickers of information, the mental health crisis, the climate emergency, the absence of “Good News”, noticing “the doomed adjunct” who may or may not be selling his plasma again, or “the blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick”, leaving the library “with a purse full of toilet paper”. This, yes, is the “weather” of today. Disaster psychology. “‘Some things are in the air, they float around,’ [Lorraine, Lizzie’s boss] says, and I think of leaves, of something falling and accumulating without notice.” Writing from within her experience of how we react in this context of dread, panic and incredulity, Offill carefully mines the ironies of our bewilderment, and the deadpan comedy that follows is empathetic rather than dismissive:

Q: What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos? 
A: You can teach them to sew, to farm, to build. Techniques for calming a fearful mind might be the most useful though. 

At one level, this novel is also a freshly intimate family portrait. It convincingly creates a texture for the “low hum” of Lizzie’s misgivings as a Brooklyn mother and wife. Yet the book is also much bigger than that. The gaps between paragraphs leave space for roomy inferences, and each careful offering of thought is so chiselled as to become synecdochic. Even in a slim novel, the vertiginous but also everyday process of coming to terms with the approaching climate crisis is made vivid. “‘Do you really think you can protect them? In 2047?” Sylvia asks. I look at her. Because until this moment, I did, I did somehow think this. She orders another drink. “Then become rich, very rich,” she says in a tight voice.”’

@jess_payn

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