Books

Life Works Exactly Like This

Another perfectly wonderful trip inside the mind of Jenny Offill.

A woman looks toward a collage of clouds, some of which look bright, some of which are dark and murky.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by O12 on Unsplash, reza shayestehpour on Unsplash, and Josh Blanton on Unsplash, v2osk on Unsplash.

The first time I finished Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather, I immediately went back to the beginning to read it again, partly because I’d found it enjoyable—charmingly wry after the fashion of Lorrie Moore—but also because the particulars of Weather had already slipped from my mind so fluidly. What is this book about? I couldn’t say. This made me feel less bad about remembering next to nothing of Offill’s previous novel, 2014’s reputation-making Dept. of Speculation, except that I’d liked it very much. So I reread that one, too.

Offill’s signature method involves the patching together of fragments—some anecdotal, others aphoristic, still others resembling diary entries—that eventually coalesce into a narrative. With Dept. of Speculation, it was the story of a marriage reaching a crisis triggered by the husband’s infidelity but haunted as well by the wife’s regret over having sidelined her artistic career for the sake of her family. The novel captures the yawning fury of marital betrayal better than most adultery narratives, and it also offers such treats as a hilarious portrait of the kind of retired gentleman who’s convinced that he can produce a world-changing book if he can just find the right handmaiden to do the actual work. (The narrator, hard up for cash, takes the job.) Anyone even remotely connected to book publishing has run into versions of this guy on multiple occasions, although I’d never before seen one depicted in fiction.

Offill’s preferred structure might sound lackadaisical, but the lapidary funniness of many of her sentences indicates how precisely she calibrates them. When Lizzie, the narrator of Weather, meets up with Henry, her anxious brother, she wishes she could “give him something for his nerves,” but because he’s clinging to a fragile sobriety, she can’t. “I remind myself (as I often do),” Lizzie notes, “never to become so addicted to drugs or alcohol that I’m not allowed to use them.” If Weather has a central conflict (and that’s debatable), it’s the teetering psyche of this brother, who freaks out and wrecks his marriage when his new wife gives birth to their daughter. Henry washes up on Lizzie’s sofa, where he gets on her husband’s nerves, yells at their son for waking him up in the morning, loses the remote, and drinks all the milk. But Lizzie can’t risk leaving her brother alone; the two of them once clung together during some unspecified childhood disaster, and early habits acquired as a matter of survival run deep.

The overarching theme of Weather is change: hoped-for in the case of Henry; lamented by (among others) the proprietor of the local hardware store, who doesn’t care for the bourgeois newcomers to their Brooklyn neighborhood; tempting in the form of Lizzie’s crush on a globe-trotting war correspondent; and, finally, existentially threatening as manifested by global warming. Lizzie, a librarian who likes to listen to other people’s troubles, takes a part-time job assisting Sylvia, a former mentor. Sylvia hosts an environmental podcast called Hell and High Water and has started a foundation to “rewild half the earth.” Sylvia, Lizzie explains, “used to check in on me sometimes to see if I was still squandering my promise. The answer was always yes.” Unlike the would-be author in Dept. of Speculation, however, Sylvia is a genuine prophet who drags Lizzie’s awareness of the world beyond the confines of her family, the library’s hard-luck patrons, and reality TV shows about extreme couponers.

Together, Lizzie and Sylvia make an expert pair of wisecrackers. “One thing that’s becoming clear on our travels,” Lizzie observes, “people are really sick of being lectured to about glaciers.” After a dinner attended by a bunch of Silicon Valley types who prattle about “de-extinction” and the singularity that will relieve human beings of the burden of fleshly existence, Sylvia quips, “These people long for immortality but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee.” Sylvia eventually decides that “there’s no hope anymore, only witness,” and plans to move into a trailer “in the darkest place in America,” to wait out the end, sounding a lot like Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of Britain’s Dark Mountain Project. This leaves Lizzie, newly convinced of the impending collapse of everything, to delve into survivalist and prepper websites, collecting such useful knowledge as how to turn a can of tuna into an oil lamp.

Curiously, one person who does not change (much) in the course of Weather is Lizzie herself. Her husband declares that she has become “a crazy doomer,” but the only aspect of her life this seems to affect is her browser history. It portrays a condition of perpetual flitting that is also fundamentally static. What Offill excels at committing to the page is the flux and ephemera of everyday consciousness. Instead of the reveries of a Virginia Woolf heroine, her narrators’ thoughts ping from YouTube videos to newspaper articles to a friend’s story of her boyfriend’s malfeasance to wondering if the drug dealer in 5C is flirting with her to advice dispensed by her meditation instructor to one of Sylvia’s podcasts, in which a “disaster psychologist” explains how to avoid getting your brain “stuck on a loop” during an emergency.

This style amounts to a pretty accurate reproduction of the wanderings of the contemporary quotidian mind. It’s as comfortable as an old slipper, which is one of the reasons why Offill’s fiction is such a pleasure to read and yet also disconcertingly easy to forget. Like water at the exact temperature of the human body, it can be hard to tell when you’re in it and when you’re not, where your transitory idle thoughts begin and Offill’s end. In Dept. of Speculation, the husband’s affair disturbs this equilibrium, introducing the kind of drama that’s expected in novels—but time passes and the steady rhythms of the mundane reassert themselves with an inertia that can be surprisingly powerful. Life, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, works exactly like this.

A total disruption, the sort of apocalypse Sylvia predicts, is both unimaginable and an object of fascination. “I can’t seem to escape that question,” Lizzie muses. “What will be the safest place?” What can she teach her son that will help him survive? How can she possibly arrange it so that there is as little change as possible for herself and the people she loves? And climate change is only one of her worries. The 2016 election occurs in the middle of the novel. “Does this feel like a country at peace or at war?” Lizzie asks the war correspondent. He tells her, “It feels the way it does just before it starts. It’s a weird thing, but you learn to pick up on it. Even while everybody’s convincing themselves it’s going to be okay, it’s there in the air somehow.”

More than one person explains to Lizzie that there will be no safe place, but like the rest of us, she continues to behave as pretty much as before. She can’t even restrain her use of the air conditioner. At one point in the book, before Sylvia gives up, she picks up a call from Lizzie and says: “I have to call you back. I’m about to send off this article, but I have to come up with the obligatory note of hope.” Weather itself concludes with a link, www.obligatorynoteofhope.com, that leads to a site that, at the time of this writing, promises “COMING SOON: Why collective action is the antidote to fear and dread. How to get involved in the fight for social and climate justice. What to do if (like me) you hate to march.” This makes for a startling coda; nothing in the preceding pages suggests that Lizzie herself has learned or is even interested in any of these things. Instead of a call to arms, Weather is a document of a certain way of life that we take for granted now, so much so that we barely pay attention to the texture of our own days. One day, all this will be gone, but here are some fragments to shore up against that ruin. Maybe then, they will be precious to us.