April 2020

Arts & Letters

Twilight knowing: Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’

By Mireille Juchau
The American novelist brings literary fiction’s focus on the interior life to climate-change cataclysm

“Every biological mother on the planet has DDT in her breastmilk,” wrote Meehan Crist in a recent piece on whether to have children in a warming world. Reading this, I recalled a poster shown at a conference, one of the few times I’ve felt reproached by a piece of bad graphic design. Picture a pregnant woman in silhouette, her belly crammed with 40 symbols including the poisons skull-and-crossbones, a wine glass, a garbage bin, the nuclear sign, a bus. This poster-mother, pregnant with the whole world, and emblazoned with NATURE, NURTURE AND WHAT LIES AHEAD suggested that we’re not, and have never been, separable from our environments. Mothers, long burdened by myths of purity (my friend’s belly was once lasciviously rubbed to transmit “goddess energy”), can today be maligned as toxic environments. And their bodies, rather than the corporations that pollute them, can be policed for harming the unborn. As I gawped at the poster – knife and fork, no-smoking sign, alarm clock, bike – one of the (mostly female) conference-goers drily wondered how the poor woman got the bus in there.

This scene shimmered up halfway through Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Weather (Granta). It too is concerned with nature, nurture and what lies ahead, with how to be a mother in a polluted present and what to think about a precarious future. It too attempts to neutralise the indignities of contemporary life with mordant wit. Set in New York City, Weather is narrated by Lizzie Benson, 44, librarian and mother of a young son, Eli. In between work at a university library, meditation classes, and life with her son, husband and recently sober brother, Lizzie absorbs apocalyptic predictions with alarm yet can’t shield her loved ones from exposure.

“What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?” That’s one of the questions she faces at work for the podcast Hell or High Water. The presenter is Sylvia Liller, Lizzie’s former uni supervisor, restyled as a climate guru. The mail, to which Lizzie must reply, is “skewing evangelical. Lots of questions about the Rapture mixed in with the ones about wind turbines and carbon taxes.” People also ask:

Why do humans need myths?

Do we live in the Anthropocene?

What is the cultural trance?

Is it wrong to eat meat?

What is surveillance capitalism?

How can we save the bees?

In between emails, Lizzie helps her newly married brother. Henry “missed drugs because they made the world stop calling to him … 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.” On his bad days they stay in and watch a reality show, My Strange Addiction: “Always a soothing hour of television. At least I don’t eat talcum powder, one can comfort oneself. At least I’m not in love with the Verrazzano Bridge.” When left alone, Henry has a tendency to watch footage of refugees being hauled from the sea. Such details run like an unnerving news crawler beneath Weather’s major acts, a reminder that the climate crisis is unevenly distributed, already unhoming others elsewhere.

Halfway through Weather, Trump’s election intensifies Lizzie’s realisation that the days of privilege are numbered:

It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at the diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.

This slim, perfectly distilled book turns out to be the ideal vehicle for themes often thought too huge or contrived for the literary novel. Offill isn’t interested in dramatising the epic events of the catastrophozoic, but wants to show what awareness of it does to our bodies, our minds, our relationships. Epic disaster, common to sci-fi and dystopian fiction, isn’t as at ease in the literary novel, where the catastrophes are more often muted and usually beset the inner life. If literature has largely been preoccupied with making the everyday strange, it must now contend with the fact that the distant and improbable – cataclysmic fire, flood, pandemic – has become commonplace. Offill contains all of this in an aphoristic, fragmented form. The effect is incantatory, diaristic, ruthlessly distilled. The usual question – what happens next? – is not a structuring one here, but an existential preoccupation. To refuse the disaster-as-backdrop is also, perhaps, to refuse its glamour. (Will we come to think of some works as ethically troubling eco-kitsch, as akin to Holo-kitsch, when disaster impacts us directly?) Weather is a story about “twilight knowing”, the mind’s resistance to engage with what we know but prefer not to see.

Lizzie, an intense noticer of the bizarre and unnerving, travels out of town with Sylvia into apple orchard and deer country. Why don’t they farm deer, she wonders – perhaps it’s because they’re too pretty? No, Sylvia says, it’s because they panic when penned. Offill lets us join the dots between deer, and panicked, penned Lizzie. Later, having observed all the natural beauty that will no longer exist in the overheated future, Lizzie emerges from the subway into rain.

There’s a low hum in my head. “Boohoo,” says the friendly-looking white man who passes me on the street. “Boohoo!”

Am I crying?

Lizzie understands “why all those people want to go to Mars”. When one is asked what they’d miss, from Earth, the reply is achingly plain: “I will miss swimming the most.” To lose cultural and natural diversity, our homes, our sense of belonging, is also to lose the associated emotions. Who better to document and preserve these feelings than the novelist?

Offill used a similar mode to great effect in her previous novel, Dept. of Speculation. That work, which shot her to prominence, combined the difficulties of being a mother and artist with flashier facts about spaceflight and celestial phenomena. Generously spaced, immaculate paragraphs float in both novels. If these are “fragments”, it is only in the way of icebergs, deeply lit, owing little of their beauty to the shelf from which they’ve calved. Occasionally this style can be a problem. As writer Amy Hempel observed, sometimes “a flat-footed sentence is what serves, so you don’t get all writerly”. In a bulkier novel the clunky sentence might pass without notice, but the gnomic vignette asks more of every word.

Burning at the heart of Weather is a question about personal complicity I hadn’t yet encountered in fiction on the climate crisis. It comes during an exchange between Lizzie and her driver (“I take the car service home because I’m ridiculous”). Mr Jimmy is asking about her work for the podcast.

What are these shows about, really? Is there a takeaway message? No, I tell him. But actually there is.

First, they came for the coral, but I did not say anything because I was not a coral…

In just three lines, Offill distils our time. She takes a car, not the subway, even though it’s more polluting. She feels obligated to people who are becoming anachronisms – the driver losing business to Uber, the shopkeeper out-stocked by Home Depot, even her brother whose role as a new father is jeopardised – yet such relationships may sustain us during societal collapse. By reworking Martin Niemöller’s famous quote about the cowardice of some Germans under Nazism (“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out”), Offill elevates and mourns the non-human world. Coral too is becoming anachronistic. We’re all unequally responsible for its death.

Offill smuggles in another question from Hitler’s Europe, in a letter to Sylvia: “Some Jews saw walls being built around the ghetto and thought they still had time. Don’t be fooled by everyone else’s calm. Get out even when nobody is considering it yet.” Soon after, Lizzie learns about “climate departure” and plans her family’s “doomstead”. By linking different historical periods she doesn’t make them equivalent, but gives climate collapse the gravitas most leaders refuse to grant it.

Despite meditating, and a brief lapse into organised religion, Lizzie isn’t often serene or remotely at one with a degrading universe. But the novel is interested in her trying and failing. She’s curious, irreverent, stumbling through the bodegas, diners, the subway’s quiet cars. Lizzie resembles an observer of modern life used by Elizabeth Hardwick (whose Sleepless Nights Susan Sontag called “a novel of mental weather”), Penelope Fitzgerald or Renata Adler. At her son’s school, where kids are gifted, talented or something soaring called “EAGLEs”, Lizzie dodges the obligatory pushy mother. She’s as selective in who she prefers to commune with as those she criticises.

“Do you ever think it’s weird,” her brother asks, “that we even have families?” Later, as Lizzie considers buying land “somewhere colder”, Sylvia asks her, “Do you really think you can protect them? In 2047?” Lizzie is silent, deflated. Keeping a child alive – not just for nine months – but forever after, is a labour already shadowed by death. Parenthood, and the decision to forgo it, is back-shadowed by what we know of the Earth’s viability. To choose either path is to carry anticipatory grief. Lizzie knows she can’t control the future, and no amount of breathwork or Buddhist koans will subdue her glorious, scale-shifting attention, or prevent her fall into history: here’s the gnarled knob of kitchen ginger mistaken for a rat skull, here’s the “best thing” in Washington D.C.’s Spy Museum – a pair of glasses tipped with cyanide for suicide under pressure.

On a grey morning, Lizzie takes her niece out in a stroller covered with plastic. As she walks, she recalls the Buddha describing his father’s care:

A white sunshade was held over me day and night so that no cold or heat or dust or grit or dew might inconvenience me.

“Onward we go,” thinks Lizzie, pushing the baby into the mist, “inconvenienced by dew!”

Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau is a writer and critic. Her most recent novel is The World Without Us.

Cover image of The Monthly, April 2020
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