by Annick Smithers
In an interview with The Guardian, Jenny Offill expresses a feeling regarding the climate crisis familiar to many of us: why aren’t we more concerned about it? This disconnect between knowing what’s to come and policies seemingly lacking any sense of urgency is what inspired Offill’s latest novel, Weather – a must-read for anyone feeling like an earth-threatening crisis can sometimes feel a little overwhelming.
In Weather, we follow Lizzie Benson as she goes about her daily life and grapples with the impending climate crisis. Lizzie works as a librarian at a university in New York, where she encounters various people who require assistance at the library’s help desk, such as an elderly man who expects Lizzie to solve his problems by giving him the password for his own email. She also imagines someone who “has been working on his dissertation for eleven years” to come home to a note from his wife saying, “Is what you’re doing right now making money?” Lizzie herself comes home to a son and husband but, significantly, also feels responsible for her brother and eventually his new-born.
When Lizzie takes on a job answering emails sent to the podcast of her old grad school professor, Sylvia, the worries of doomsayers slowly start to invade Lizzie’s life. The podcast, called Hell and High Water, is about climate change, and, unsurprisingly, “everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed.” In addition to dealing with “cranky professors” at her job at the library, Lizzie now also has to soothe the existential concerns of doomsday preppers and end-timers. Lizzie’s answers to the emails are witty and illustrate her overwhelming feeling of dread when facing the issue of climate change. For example, rather than teaching the younger generation to farm or hunt as the most useful way to prepare for “the coming chaos,” she suggests teaching them “techniques for calming a fearful mind.”
This strategy certainly seems the most appropriate way to cope during a time when even some world leaders, most notably the former President of the United States, do not listen to scientists and believe climate change to be a hoax. In the novel, Sylvia provides some much-needed sense on the matter, even though the contents of her well-researched talks are not soothing at all. The knowledge and clarity provided by Sylvia is contrasted with the teaching approach of the school where Lizzie takes her son Eli. Some of the wittiest remarks by Lizzie concern the alienating environment of Eli’s elementary school. Lizzie’s request to add seedlings in the kindergarten classrooms is denied, as it is “a safety issue.” The school’s strict regulations give the impression of it being a strange, human factory, where future generations are being taught without even the slightest bit of humanity provided through some plants
While Lizzie’s slate of responsibilities might make anyone want to move to Mars (as she considers for a moment), Offill still manages to bring a lightness to her descriptions of Lizzie’s experiences, so it never feels as overwhelming for the reader as it must for Lizzie. Through her thoughts and observations, which are often funny and smart, we only get access to snippets of Lizzie’s life; the novel, therefore, does not have a very clear plot. Rather, Offill uses the framework of the novel to meditate on the current state of America, where “Much of the population was in a mild stupor, depressed, congregating in small unstable groups, and prone to rumors of doom.” .
Similar to Offill’s previous novel The Department of Speculation, Weather is written in a fragmentary style. The novel is written in small sections, each only about seven lines long, highlighting Lizzie’s remarks and observations about her life. Offill nevertheless manages to create characters that are interesting and believable, as we get to know them through Lizzie’s poignant perspective. While some fragments do seem to come rather out of the blue, it is precisely this conglomeration of Lizzie’s random thoughts that ultimately makes the novel so funny and clever. At times, it is difficult to make sense of Offill’s playful style and Lizzie’s out-of-context observations, but this randomness and struggle to grasp the situation is perfectly reflective of our grapple with the climate crisis. Lizzie’s feeling of helplessness about the climate crisis and pessimism about the future is relatable. One the one hand, there is the existential dread and hopelessness that accompanies looking too deep into the matter, a rabbit hole that we see Lizzie falling into multiple times. On the other hand, it is all too easy to remain ignorant on the issue and to cling to a self-preserving mindset. Lizzie knows that many people “are really sick of being lectured to about the glaciers” and do not want to hear about issues that seemingly have nothing to do with them. All they want to know is “what’s going to happen to the American weather?”
Weather shows us that it is natural to feel overwhelmed by what we are facing, both in our current, everyday lives and in regard to the long-term challenges for future generations. It is difficult to become involved and not go into doomsday prepper mode, like the people Lizzie consoles for the podcast. At the same time, it is also all too easy to only be concerned about your local weather forecast. Weather shows us how a regular person grapples with the facing threat of the climate crisis, all the while trying not to succumb to the dread that comes along with it. And, just in case, it also teaches us how to make a candle from a tin of tuna.
Annick Smithers is one of the RevUU’s copy editors. She finished her English Language Bachelor’s degree last year and is now pursuing the English track of the Literature Today Master’s program. She’s mostly interested in the role of language and literature in society. Some of her favourite authors are Ali Smith, Angela Carter, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Photo by Annick Smithers
Offill, Jenny. Weather. Granta Books, 2020.
Scutts, Joanna. “Jenny Offill: ‘I no longer felt like it wasn’t my fight’.” The Guardian, 8 Feb. 2020.