Lizzie, the narrator of Jenny Offill’s drolly fractured third novel, Weather, is a university librarian in her forties. ‘All day long, cranky professors.’ In a previous life, she wrote half a dissertation: ‘“The Domestication of Death: Cross-cultural Mythologies” I was pleased to call it.’ But her academic career was run off the rails by her having to care for a drug-addicted brother, Henry. Now Lizzie contends with fretful, garrulous colleagues like the woman who carries her own X-rays around all day: ‘Some kind of medical mistake. It can’t be undone, but it can be recounted.’ There is a ‘doomed adjunct’, a nail-biting toilet paper thief, and an undergraduate with stern ambitions: ‘Failure is not an option.’ Lizzie’s employers provide a typology of library users: ‘Malodorous/Humming/Laughing/Defacing/Laundering/Combative/Chattering/Lonely/Coughing.’ Lonely you’d expect, but laundering?
With her mordant inner monologue about campus life, her equally disappointed husband Ben, and robot-obsessed son Eli, Lizzie has all the lineaments of the heroine from a conventional novel of middle-aged dread. Except we’re in the present, and the present has gone to hell. Lizzie knows the standard worries: ‘Here is the midnight question for my husband. What is wrong with my knee?’ Now, in the wake of the 2016 US election (President Trump is never actually named) daily life is stalked by horror, soaked with panic. At the breakfast table, Ben reads Lucretius, who in his own time diagnosed ‘Terrible fears one minute! Apathy the next!’ At the supermarket Eli asks who made all the fading things on the shelves, and Lizzie replies ‘the Invisible Hand’ – of capital, that is, which is evanescing and accelerating in the same instant. Lizzie meets a young woman who thinks she’s living life slower than her friends, because her phone is months older than theirs.
In Weather, as in life, environmental anxieties have produced a culture addicted to picturing itself doing something about the emergency. Lizzie’s former academic mentor Sylvia is now a self-help eco-guru with a podcast called Hell and High Water. When she hires Lizzie to field correspondence from her listeners, all manner of ‘doomer’ voices start to intrude, turning the narrator’s stream of self-consciousness into a paranoid timeline, a jittering feed of survivalist pro tips and transhumanist dreck. Offill is extremely good at conveying Lizzie’s sardonic, appalled and swiftly subsumed perspective, which is that of a generation who thought irony would save them, trying now to cope with a world that is either all sincerity or gone baroquely mad. Reflex wit is Lizzie’s first recourse: ‘First, they came for the coral, but I did not say anything because I was not a coral.’ Soon, she is wondering if she and Ben should not be building and stocking up their ‘doomstead’, in readiness for the end times.
In her second novel, Dept. of Speculation, Offill arrived at a lapidary, fragmented style that’s also present in Weather. Lizzie’s impressions sit squarely in paragraphs of less than a dozen lines, sometimes set off by elliptical section breaks, sometimes punctuated with laconic asides: ‘Let’s pause here.’ It’s a structure at once seamless – wherever it wanders, the voice always burrows home to these solid stanzas – and at the same time antsy, distracted, swerving. It looks and sounds like the voice of ingrained catastrophizing anxiety, trying to shout itself down. Letters and emails from the survivalist fringe (which is now another name for the world) are framed on the page: ‘Q: What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?’ At times, Lizzie’s own fragments seem to speak from some abstracted elsewhere: ‘I had that thought again. The one with the numbers in it. It bent the light.’ At others, she’s reciting italicized jokes in an effort to one-up the worry, or inventing absurd greeting-card copy: ‘To a Step-Aunt Who Was Always There… To a Hospitalized Second Cousin.…’
In other words, Weather is also (or maybe primarily) a book about contemporary language, its consolations and betrayals, the uses and abuses of irony and innovation. On the one hand, words and the structures in which they sit have become entirely opaque: ‘What is the Nanohummingbird? What is the Robofish?’ On the other, language is all Lizzie has to keep such monsters at bay. Though late in the novel she is tempted by a distracting affair while her husband and son are away, Lizzie’s main method for coping with the raging and unmeaning world around her consists of noticing oddities of tone or usage, eruptions of deadly strangeness in everyday discourse. When a car nearly runs over Lizzie and her brother, Henry reproaches the driver: ‘“You and your precious lives,” she says.’
Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.