“All around us things tried to announce their true nature,” observes Lizzie, the heroine of Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. “Their radiance was faint and fainter still beneath the terrible music.” In Weather, as in her groundbreaking novel Dept. of Speculation, Offill captures both the “terrible music” and the “quiet radiance” of contemporary life. She allows us to see the world anew, as a place where we can—and must—encounter both discord and poetry.
Lizzie, a librarian “not young or pretty enough to matter,” moves through a stunned city during and after an election. As she grows “edgy and restless,” she listens to podcasts and lectures about glaciers, and to the seemingly trivial worries of Uber drivers and competitive mothers; she meditates with Buddhists before watching TV shows about extreme shopping and drug addicts ambushed by their families. Like the Wife in Dept. of Speculation, Lizzie is a keen, often hilarious observer, fiercely intelligent but utterly ignored and relatively powerless. Yet Lizzie attempts, even achieves, something heroic by the novel’s end. She sympathizes with the flawed and the flailing; she investigates and instigates survival strategies, and, like Offill herself, she finds the “quiet radiance” despite it all.
Offill and I live close to each other in the Hudson Valley. Reading Weather, I recalled two moments where her presence had shifted something from the ordinary to the beautiful and then to the terrifying. In the first, we went for a walk on a route that was private and, to me, unknown. She had said something about a beach, but I thought this must be an exaggeration, as the landscape around us is forests and hills. Yet when we broke through the clearing, there was not only a beach but a small island and a cove set off from the rest of the Hudson. Something shimmered in the water; I thought it might be a bird. Instead, a naked woman rose out of the water and began to swim toward us. My daughter screamed with joy, thinking she’d at last seen a mermaid. Jenny shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, This is where I live. Strange things happen. Years later, as she drove me home from a party, I mentioned that I was having trouble breathing but it was likely nothing, probably an allergy to dust in my attic or pollen in the fields. I might have ignored the fact that I was often winded and dizzy, but Jenny insisted I go the ER in a manner that felt somehow sage and inarguable. When I went to the hospital the following day, the doctors discovered a collapsed lung and something “suspicious.” All around us things tried to announce their true nature. Recently, I emailed Jenny to ask about post-Trump anxiety, preppers, and how the novel, and the author, can create quiet beauty in a time of terrible music.
Was there a particular moment that led to the inception of this novel?
The novel came out of years and years of talking about extinction and climate change with my friend, the novelist Lydia Millet. At a certain point, all of it just added up and I thought, what is wrong with me that I still think about this so abstractly, that I still don’t feel it? So in a way the process of writing Weather was about trying to move from thinking about what is happening to feeling the immensity and sadness of it.
I was also struck by an article I read about how a well-known British environmentalist, Paul Kingsnorth, was walking away from years of campaigning because he believed hopes were being raised falsely that we could still stop or contain the climate crisis. The article was rather glibly titled “It’s the End of the World as We Know It … and He Feels Fine.”
In fact, he went on to found a group for artists and writers called Dark Mountain. You can read their manifesto here. It begins quite chillingly with this passage:
Those who witness extreme social collapse at first hand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truths of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die.
The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives? So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow as if all the things we rely on and don’t think about too carefully will still be there. When the pattern is broken, by civil war or natural disaster or the smaller-scale tragedies that tear at its fabric, many of those activities become impossible or meaningless, while simply meeting needs we once took for granted may occupy much of our lives.
What war correspondents and relief workers report is not only the fragility of the fabric, but the speed with which it can unravel. As we write this, no one can say with certainty where the unravelling of the financial and commercial fabric of our economies will end.
A very early draft of Weather had the working title “Learning to Die.”