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Jenny Offill’s writing evokes the image of a lone figure on an isolated beach, combing the sand in the hunt for something --- anything --- worth picking up. But unlike that solitary character’s typical yield of broken shells and worthless sea glass, it’s easy to picture Offill’s search yielding items of true value. It’s from the thoughtful accumulation of those precious fragments of keen observation that her apocalypse-tinged third novel, WEATHER, is painstakingly assembled.

WEATHER, which straddles the 2016 US presidential election, is narrated by Lizzie, a graduate school dropout (field of study not specified). She works at the help desk at a university library, responding to the patrons’ often odd requests, while commenting archly on their foibles. She lives in Flatbush with her husband, Ben --- a classics PhD who has turned to building video games after two years of frustration in the job market --- and their young son, Eli.

Lizzie’s decision to work part-time answering email for Sylvia --- her former mentor and the host of a podcast entitled “Hell and High Water,” who checks in on Lizzie to see if she is “still squandering my promise” --- only heightens her unease. Among other projects, Sylvia strives to persuade a group of Silicon Valley investors to support a new foundation whose goal is to “rewild half the earth.” Those same funders engage in fantasies about “de-extinction,” while “Woolly mammoths are of great interest to them. Saber-tooth tigers too.”

"Out of the improbable ingredients that compose this bubbling stew, Offill simultaneously and unobtrusively creates both a world that’s a meaningful simulacrum of our own and something that looks like a conventional plot."

As Offill (DEPT. OF SPECULATION) slowly builds on the theme of environmental catastrophe, we learn about New Zealand “doomsteads,” where the wealthy plan to live out their survivalist strategies as the world collapses around them. In one of those jarring juxtapositions that make Offill’s fiction so refreshing, Lizzie observes:

“The pros of New Zealand are that it’s beautiful, politically stable, and moderate in climate. The cons are the government has restrictions about what you can name your kid. Sex Fruit and Fat Boy are forbidden. Violence and Number 16 Bus Shelter are okay.”

But even with all this preoccupation with climate change, she finds the activists who communicate with Sylvia less interesting than the “end-timer ones.” “Environmentalists are so dreary,” she tells Sylvia, who replies, “I know, I know.”

Sharing an apartment building with, among others, “the drug dealer who lives in 5C,” and Mrs. Kovinski, an angry tenant she worries --- when “the voice in my head gets all Jesusy” --- will “betray me,” Lizzie’s personal life is no less agitated. Apart from her and Ben’s chronic underemployment (he chides her about the piles of bills she persists in ignoring), there’s the plight of her brother Henry, a recovering addict who works as a copywriter at a greeting card company and who marries and fathers a child, complicating his sobriety.

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election only exacerbates the tension. “It was the same after 9/11,” she observes, “there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere talking about the same thing.” When she meets a friend who fled Iran one week before the Shah fell, he tells her, “Your people have finally fallen into history. The rest of us are already here.” And when she asks Will, a journalist who has spent time in war zones, whether the country feels like it’s at peace or at war, he replies, enigmatically, that “it feels the way it does just before it starts.”

All this only feeds Lizzie’s persistent, free-floating anxiety. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to stop making bad decisions. The weird thing is they don’t sneak up on me. I can see them coming all the way down the pike.” Reflecting on a conversation with a co-worker, she thinks, “But no one is safe, I want to tell her. Safe?” Even a meditation class can’t provide a balm for her worries.

Rolling from one fragment to the next, WEATHER is a pastiche of seemingly random observations, obscure factoids, bad jokes (featuring a turtle who gets mugged and a woman who thinks she’s a moth), and frequent glimpses of insight that flash like heat lightning. Out of the improbable ingredients that compose this bubbling stew, Offill simultaneously and unobtrusively creates both a world that’s a meaningful simulacrum of our own and something that looks like a conventional plot.

Like many of us today, Lizzie’s “#1 fear is the acceleration of days.” As much as we might want to disrupt that process, we understand that can’t happen. But for all our regrets, there’s some reassurance in knowing that in Jenny Offill we have a smart, funny fellow traveler along for the bumpy ride.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on February 21, 2020

by Jenny Offill

  • Publication Date: January 19, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0345806905
  • ISBN-13: 9780345806901