By Jenny Offill
New York, NY; Knopf, 2020, 224 pp., $23.95, hardcover
How does a woman hold her world together? Jenny Offill's Weather showcases a heroine with multiple burdens to fulfill: a brother suffering from addiction, a sensitive son, a husband also reacting to the weather, a boss who has her answering unanswerable letters. With tremendous sensitivity she manages to give you a deep read of this woman's life and all our lives. I'm full of admiration for the way she uses brevity of description and humor.
I've always wanted to write a book that shows the trivia and contradiction that make up a woman's life, but Jenny Offill has done it. Weather is a novel of fierce evocation through fragmentary looks at life. It is at once funny and perplexing. Offill is a specialist in melted ego and she is surprising and hard to describe. She has invented a new way of writing novels that seems to me like a melange of fiction and poetry. Her descriptions are acute, her ability to get inside a woman's head is innovative, and yet the materials out of which she makes it are so fragmentary that at first you don't think they will work. And yet they do.
As in her previous novel, Dept. of Speculation (2014), her approach is distinct--dense and precise. Here's an example:
I finally tried the meditation class. My knee was hurting so I sat on a chair. The mostly enlightened woman was there on a cushion. I'd wondered what happened to her. At the end, she asked the teacher a question or what she seemed to think was a question. "I have been fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in the melted ego world. But I find I have trouble coming back to the differentiated world, the one you were just talking about where you have to wash the dishes and take out the garbage." She was very pregnant, six months maybe. Oh, don't worry, 1 thought, the differentiated world is coming for your ass.
Plot? There is none. Answers? There are none. And yet, somehow, she has evoked the pressure that builds from the small things in our everyday lives--much like weather. So, given the lack of traditional narrative, why is the book effective? I think it's because Offill's descriptions of people are so sharp. She shows the interaction of characters with tremendous economy and has placed her narrator (a librarian called Lizzie) right in the center of the questions we have about our lives today.
As noted, the central metaphor of the book is weather--climate change and the gusts and torpor of our minds as we confront the possibility that the world as we know it may cease to exist. Through a clever use of trivia, Offill creates character and situation:
Sylvia has a new escape plan. She wants to buy a trailer in the darkest place in America. She lived there once years ago with an ex who was an amateur astronomer. It's in Nevada somewhere, hours and hours from the nearest city. On a clear night, you can see the pinwheel galaxy with the naked eye, she says. Later, I look it up and learn it is twenty-five million light-years away. No more campaigning no more fund-raising, no more obligatory notes of hope. Already things she worked on for years have been swept away with the stroke of a pen. All she wants now is to go somewhere quiet and dark, she says. Withdrawal to the desert is called anachoresis in Greek.
The novel's themes are devastating and complex; its brevity is what you might think won't allow it to work yet it is exactly what does. She meticulously juxtaposes ordinary things so that they evoke verite and add up to more than the sum of their parts--a relentless tracking of everyday life and observations that show us how far the ordinary is from ordinary. The denseness of observation took my breath away.
Using a wry understated humor, we get to know Lizzie through the small snippets of everyday life; for instance, dropping off her son at school and dodging the administrative worker or teacher on a power trip:
The woman with the bullhorn is at the school door this morning. She's warning the parents not to go in, to leave the children there behind the red line, "Safety first!" she yells. "Safety first." "No parents! No parents may accompany their children!" God, she loves that bullhorn. Something shoots through me at the sound of her voice, then I'm on the street again, telling myself not to think.
Capturing the trivial moments in life that you usually react to with a sigh or by rolling your eyes, she hits the mark dead-on with emotional clarity. Offill highlights the moments and thoughts we all have but rarely voice with a poetic nuance, emotional connection, or scientific precision: "There is a heroic tower of folded things on the table. I spot my favorite shirt, my least depressing underwear. I go into the bedroom and change into them. Now I am a brand-new person."
Offill's observations are human, noting things we all do: "There's a sign on our elevator saying it is out of order. I stand there looking at it as if it might change." And she calls to the reader in every (seemingly) random thought her protagonist has: "Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do does?"
The book ends much how it starts, as a moment in the life of this character who the reader gets to know well. Nothing calamitous happens to her, nothing swoops you off your feet, you probably won't cry. You may find yourself smiling or nodding your head in pleasure at how Offill captures the exact sentiment you felt in a similar predicament, whether it be the moment your vulnerable child is taken to school, or the protestor on the stairs to your office building who makes you think twice about your ham sandwich (which you eat anyway), telling you that pigs are easier to train and smarter than dogs. Or perhaps when you try to explain to an elderly gentleman that there is no way you as a librarian can know his email password because he (not you!) made it up, and have him look at you as though you're deliberately evading your duty to help.
Weather is a very difficult book to review because of its originality. Jenny Offill is witty, intelligent, and writes in a way I find addictive to read but hard to adequately describe.
Reviewed by Erica Jong
Erica Jong is the author of more than 25 books. Her first book, Fear of Flying, published in 1973, blew conventional thinking about women, marriage, and sexuality out of the water, and sold 37 million copies worldwide.