With her new novel Weather on the shelf next to 2014’s Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill has written two of our most essential books about right-the-hell-now.
Dept. of Speculation plunged us into a life in disarray—bedbugs and infidelity plagued the narrator in equal measure—but also introduced us to Offill’s new way of being on the page. In her first novel since 1999’s Last Things, Offill managed to make a book sidle up and talk to you like someone you see every day on your commute, but with whom you had never exchanged a single word.
Weather extends this mode, moving from the loneliness of Dept. of Speculation to despair. The novel’s story—about a failed academic named Lizzie, her job as a librarian, her other job answering emails for a podcast about climate change, her addict brother and his new recovering addict wife, their aging mother, Lizzie’s passing fancy for a handsome survivalist, her husband and child, and her own evolving, mutating cocktail of anguish and hope—has its broadest reach in the unceasing worry enveloping them all. Lizzie has an insatiable love of information, even as she doubts that knowing things can save her and her loved ones from the sort of disaster that Sylvia, her old advisor and current doom-and-gloom podcaster, predicts.
The novel’s quick, epigrammatic brushstrokes and observations are often at seeming, frustrating, or hilarious odds with the very next insight. Read quickly or slowly, Weather takes us right up to the largest questions there are. And yet, books of such magnitude aren’t supposed to be this easy to read, are they?
Offill’s novels are hard to summarize, driven by narratives and characters whose movements on the page are discursive and wonderfully indirect. Ultimately, this works to make her stories seem more real: as a caretaker of the people around her, Lizzie speaks to them—and to us—both directly and indirectly; giving voice to the offhand and the seemingly irrelevant alongside things of great consequence. All the while, she does the best she can, even as her brother’s addiction sneaks in sideways, her ethics devolve into a series of chores, and the clock keeps ticking on a society that can’t stop obsessing over trivial goals and deadlines.
As we consider what it means to live day-to-day alongside seemingly intractable problems, I wanted to hear more from the author who has tackled this tension while staying true to all our fallacies. So I drove over the Berkshires and a little ways down the Hudson to meet her at a small, unassuming bakery with a reputation for good macaroons.
—Drew Johnson for Guernica
Guernica: This novel used to be called American Weather—now it’s just called Weather.
Offill: The title came from an exchange of dialogue a little more than a third of the way in, after someone has been told about the glaciers melting.
“’Listen, I’ve heard about all that,’ says this red-faced man, ‘but what’s going to happen to the American weather?’”
I wrote that passage really early on, six or seven years ago. I was thinking at the time about American isolationism, and the idea of people really not understanding the difference between climate and weather. And also the sense that what we do in one place doesn’t matter in another. I remember, after the tsunami—the multiple disasters in Japan—there was some news item about which way the wind was blowing the radioactivity, and you had things like, “In a fantastic stroke of luck, the wind is blowing this way,” but of course then it was blowing another way, which was “in a terrible stroke of luck.” And so I was thinking, we don’t care what happens to the glaciers, we just want to know what happens to the American weather.
I liked it. And then I started second-guessing the title. Trump was elected and every other book started to be “American something.” So I took “American” off. And I’m really glad I did. Not only did that kind of titling continue to happen, but also, as I continued to write the book, I liked the idea that it could sound like “whether”—whether you will do this, whether you will do that.
It was also to feel my way toward writing a political novel, because that was such a leap for me. And I was thinking of it in terms of that whole Phillip Roth, AMERICAN Pastoral, man-of-letters way. I thought, in a feminist way, that it was sort of funny to write a small book, and give it a title like that. What I really like about this title now is that it says, Weather: A Novel.
Guernica: That is a nice dichotomy. I thought of the old divide between the slender novellas usually placed opposite the sprawling books: The Princesse de Cleves vs. Tom Jones.
Offill: Yeah, I’m always Team European Novella.
Guernica: You’ve spoke a little bit about this already, but how do you find your way into this mantle—these big themes of our times—with this other set of tools?
Offill: I don’t think very thematically for a long time. I go in through the language. I had an image, an idea with this book: I wanted it to move like weather. I wanted it to swirl. That’s why it doesn’t have individual chapters. And probably, if I’d had my way, I would have had the whole thing with no breaks at all. But I did realize I was losing something in coherence. A certain randomness was happening.
Early on, the designer put a long line wherever they saw a break, and I said “No, I want it to be as imperceptible as possible, whatever is the closest to not registering: the equivalent of how you say ‘said’ in dialogue, the weight of the dialogue tag.”
What I do is, I start collecting little moments or impressions that I want to write about, and it takes me a while to figure out what that’s going to be. When I talk about it later, I’m always reverse-engineering it a little bit.
When I talked about climate change with my friend, Lydia Millet, who’s a writer and an environmentalist, I started to be interested in why I knew and believed all these things intellectually and then felt nothing. I’m not at all someone who believes this isn’t happening. I’m not even someone who isn’t listening to the doomy bits. We’ve talked about Stanley Cohen’s book States of Denial, and as I read about climate change I was fascinated by the different kinds of denial and disavowal. And one of them is a kind of twilight knowing, where you know but you pretend to yourself that you don’t really know, that it doesn’t affect you exactly.
One of the reasons this book became so much about climate change is because I moved from being abstractly aware to actually feeling the—I don’t even quite know the word…
Guernica: Narrowing space?
Offill: Yeah! If the central emotion of Dept. of Speculation was loneliness, this novel was about, what does it mean to confront dread? You feel that something’s coming down the pike, but you can’t completely make out the shape of it.
Then the election happened, and that was also of that nature. This is very bad, and the ways this will be bad are being speculated about and talked about, but we don’t actually know the particular nature of it.
Guernica: Speaking to different kinds of denial: at several points in the book, you bring up the sort of surprising ways people react in crisis—including the way they sometimes don’t react, the incredulity response.
Offill: The name the sociologists use is “normalcy bias.” The way it plays out when you read about disaster psychology is fascinating. Our brain makes so many shortcuts to get through the day, and is constantly using a previous template about what would happen in a situation. So if we were here in this café and someone came in and we heard a pop, mostly we’d think, oh, something went wrong in the cappuccino machine. We do that with everything. The brain just keeps trying to find THE SCENARIO. Even police officers find that, in their first experience where they’re in danger, they’ll have a really weird reaction with their gun: they think they’ll be able to shoot and then, oh, maybe that’s not really what’s happening there. It’s true even if you’re trained.
Guernica: I wondered for the first time, reading your book, if there might be an evolutionary advantage to believing in the unseen, believing in something that can never be disproven, as we live through these times where so many of us navigated by ideas that were part of the world—government or morality or what-have-you—that are now proving totally inadequate to the enormity of this moment.
One of the great themes in this book that I think is so well examined here, as it is in Rachel Cusk’s work, is the idea of living your life in terms of your children—an especially fragile secular religion.
Offill: Do you think the main character lives like that?
Guernica: No. In fact, the first example that springs to mind is the moment when Ben, the husband, is trying so hard to sell their child on a camp where children learn to do things like churn butter, and the child replies, “It’s you that wants to go.”
Children die, or become drug dealers, or become themselves in ways their parents didn’t anticipate. Which reminds me of that great worldview binary you brought up in your wonderful review of Rachel Cusk’s Kudos: “It all came to nothing” vs. “It all came together.”
Offill: I was actually going to put that in the novel, but it fit so well in the review. I took it out of the novel and there was a big hole there for a while. I think I put in a passage about disaster vs. emergency. Different ideas of what you have to do in the moment. Ever since I heard the just-world hypothesis, I hear people saying it without realizing they’re saying it. And this is where I think not having religious ideas of an old sort can be very difficult. The whole idea of, “There but for the grace of God go I”—that is so rare now!
One of the interesting things happening in the world of social justice is that non-white activists are saying, “This is the piece of shit we’ve been sold for a long time: this idea that it’s all individual responsibility and none of its systemic.” The just-world hypothesis is, “You get what you deserve and you deserve what you get.”
I could say to myself: I’m having this great run with this book. I could say, It’s because I worked SO hard, unlike other writers! But I could count on my hands people who do amazing work and so far nothing much has come of it. There’s no humility in the just-world hypothesis—that’s what interests me in The Desert Fathers material.
Guernica: [Pulls out a book and puts it on the table.] Is this the book you’re talking about? The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell?
Offill: That’s exactly the book. The same edition.
Guernica: When you mentioned it in Weather, I realized that I thought I had it, and did, in this pile of books in the basement. I didn’t know much about these third-century monks Waddell presents, and I think of the austere, monastic, mystical practice presented in this book as an element of Christianity that has never really gone over in the States. Maybe because if religion withdraws from the world, it cannot control the world. But in any case, I know less about these traditions than I know about Buddhist monks, for example.
Offill: But you know what? All these people understand each other. A Jesuit monk can understand what’s going on with a Buddhist monk. It’s this part of comparative religious studies I thought about majoring in in college. This particular version of mysticism that’s about withdrawal and retreat, the dark retreat. It’s not about putting yourself up as this great teacher. There are so many good parables; I think about the one where a monk comes to his teacher and says, “My brother falls asleep during prayer and slumps over. How should I correct him?” And the teacher says, “If he is falling over during prayer, put out your knee so that he can rest upon it while he’s sleeping.”
There’s this incredibly ascetic choice, but then you don’t get to say you’ve done it all right. The rigidity of a lot of religious tradition—in the monastic tradition, particularly in the Buddhist tradition: this, and also this.
Guernica: Weather is a very realistic book; we’re in very big trouble. And I see nothing to indicate that things might change in ways that will matter. But I’m also drawn to Rebecca Solnit’s idea of “hope in the dark”—that we don’t know what’s going to happen. That represents an opening, a possibility.
This book seems to be written from a place where we know what’s going to happen, but there’s humility to it. How did you situate that realism in a moment where on one hand, it looks like we’re doomed, and on the other, activism seems to hold such great potential?
Offill: One of the jumping off points for this book was an article I read many, many years ago about Paul Kingsnorth, a well-known environmental activist in England. After years of working very seriously on all these issues, he wrote a series of essays in Orion [Magazine] where he discussed his decision to walk away from activism: I feel like I’m a priest who no longer believes in God giving a sermon. I’m not going to do it anymore. I’m going to go for a walk. Everyone in the environmental community was furious.
Yet one of the first little jokes I put in the book—because I noticed it when I started clicking on the “environmental” tab when I was reading the news—is the “obligatory note of hope.” It’s like true, true, true, and then this weird swerve at the end, but if we… And then the reader says to themselves, But that would require everyone in the world to cooperate in a way they never have, and also that we had machines that take carbon out of the air. But still, we shouldn’t use straws anymore, or whatever it is that people are wanting to latch onto.
Go read The Dark Mountain Manifesto. One of the best things Paul Kingsnorth says is that the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world, full stop. It’s super fucking dark. Yes, these things are collapsing and this is what happens when you make infinite progress and growth a god in a finite place. He basically said we need to step back and tell the truth about how we think things are; then, from there, we can decide what must be done. He referenced the dark retreats of the Taoists: this whole tradition of retreating when you don’t know what to do anymore, instead of muddling forward. Withdraw to reengage.
But most people who do that work say, understandably, “No, we cannot stop.” So often, they can actually quantify what’s being lost—this many acres. There’s a certain wonkiness to the environmental movement. I went on one of these retreats with Lydia Millet, and she had a funny and unerring sense of when something might turn participatory. [I’d think] I really just want to go to a lecture—I don’t want to go to a break-out group. Lydia would say, “Hmmm, I think I’m going to go for a walk.” She would, and sure enough, immediately came the breakaway session. I don’t always want to talk to the person sitting next to me; I want to listen to someone who’s spent years studying soils.
Guernica: Temperament is so much a part of this. Aesthetics are so much a part of this.
Offill: One of the things I liked about the Dark Mountain group was, it was all these super smart British people, mostly. So the hippie, fuzzy-thinking part was noticeably absent. I can’t understand physics, because I can’t understand the math. But as soon as I read climate change science, and had a basis in that, I started to read away from that: climate change psychology, sociology about climate change, disaster psychology, and also just back to weird subspecialties.
Something fun—and I put it in towards the end of Weather—was all these search-and-rescue facts. The last part of the book was really interesting to write. And it also has that Desert Fathers quote: “We have died and are in love with everything.” Which is maybe as close as I can get to what’s happening right now. I knew I wanted to set the book after the next election—and I’d never written into the future before, a very strange feeling. I also wanted that feeling after you vote and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re outside with other people milling around. And I remember that weird bit of search-party lore, that people often walk by their own rescuers. They have to be tackled.
Guernica: There was the recent story where a woman joined her own search party, the one that was looking for her. They were all bundled up and didn’t recognize her; she didn’t understand what was happening, and just joined in to help.
Offill: That’s even better. Humans and their disaster responses: We’re good if it’s a snake or a lion. We’re less good if it’s something stranger.
Guernica: In talking about all these models of human behavior, I’m curious about Sylvia—in the novel, she has a podcast and employs Lizzie as a ghostwriter. Sylvia seems like she’ll be a really central character—the columnist the narrator shadows and even takes over from—but she almost refuses to become that. In the end, she’s like, “I’m done.”
Offill: She does the Paul Kingsnorth thing: she walks away.
Guernica: How did you come to that?
Offill: I do think maybe she is a bit underwritten. When I try to imagine a novel before it’s written, I’ll try to peg it in certain ways on certain things, and then they just don’t turn out to be the things that interest me as much. Sylvia and Lizzie—what it was like for them, just became less interesting. I have a lot more of the Q&A stuff—Sylvia and her ghostwriter, Lizzie, answering questions from podcast listeners—but that just felt too easy to use as an out in the course of the book. I really do subscribe to that Calvino idea, that revision is the subtraction of weight. It’s too heavy here. I want it to be dense. But I don’t want it to be heavy.
There were a lot of things that I wanted to put into Weather, but I had that feeling when there’s a lot of research and you can just feel that something is over-researched. And even though I try really hard, I want it to feel like I’m not. I was telling my students the other day, when Olympic ice-skating is on, I pretty much have the same reaction every time I watch it. Everybody’s good—it’s the Olympics—but there are a couple of people who are so good, they make you believe that you should try ice skating, and that you might be very good at ice skating: I would like to do some of those triple axels.
Guernica: Maybe this is a good pivot to the literary and maybe it isn’t: there aren’t a lot of writers name-checked in Weather, but one of the few to be mentioned is Jean Rhys. It would be hard to find a more despairing writer than Jean Rhys. And yet the way she breaks straightforward narrative, the chord she strikes with your seeming formlessness, fits with your aesthetic. Did you experience any dissonance between your aesthetic models and your political models?
Offill: When people give rules for writing, I’m always thinking, What about Beckett? Whenever they say things you have to do…there’s Beckett.
I just like books where I can see doublings, I can see doubt. That’s one of things I like so much in European writing. If you’re gonna read Thomas Bernhard, you’re going to see the actual points where it doubles back. Then it goes forward again. Jean Rhys does it her own way. Hers is more like a stutter-step. She goes toward a vision where the surfaces can be maintained and there can be gaiety and grace to life—and then that will absolutely fall apart. You can see the sort of…sallying forth of the spirit. Denis Johnson does it quite amazingly. Those swings that I think are really interesting in writing. Those moments where somebody brings you forward into one way they look at things, and then they don’t lie about all the things that don’t support that.
Guernica: And also just don’t narratively “fit.”
Offill: What I wish is for the novels to look quite effortlessly done. What I’m hoping for at the end of a novel—and that religious thing is coming in again, and it’s a little mystical—is a kind of grace. Something else has slipped in, and there’s a little grace that is making things appear more radiant than they originally did.
Guernica: The original bearer of the term “stream of consciousness”, Dorothy Richardson’s long novel Pilgrimage, has the workaday woven into it so much more than in the work of so many modernist novelists—Joyce, Proust, even Woolf—and reminded me of the way you use the everyday alongside the abstract.
Offill: A lot of the books I love…there isn’t much caretaking intruding. I can read and teach Hunger or Confessions of Zeno, but they do feel gendered in a specific way. The caretaking element is a part of so many people’s lives, whether you have children or not. (My parents just moved here, so I have two more people in my ZIP code). Certainly, Lizzie becomes a caretaker more or more as her brother’s collapsing life invades her own. A lot of people have these kind of responsibilities—it could be people; it could be animals—but it holds everything else up. And it isn’t exactly boring.
When I see people put workaday things into contemporary novels, it’s often to show the tedium of it. And that’s important, but there are also these really weird moments. You didn’t leave the other part of you, the philosophical part, behind, even if you’re in the drugstore trying to figure out which ointment to buy. Caretaking is all about trying to protect people from injury, from death, from harm, from sorrow. It’s this extremely important thing people are doing all the time. And in this book, I wanted to it to be there, at work in a particular way.
Guernica: And so, in a pretty direct line, we go from the small-scale caregiving to the larger problem of taking care of each other?
Offill: Through my bookish way, at the end of working on this book and reading all these different things and dipping my toe into different activist efforts (which I’m now much more full-on into), I did come quite truly to the idea that collective action is the only hope.
My entry point was reading a book called Why Civil Resistance Works. The authors studied nonviolent movements for 100 years. And they found, to their surprise, that nonviolent movements had a far greater success rate than violent movements. They also found there was a very particular tipping point: if you got 3.5 percent of the population of a country to become involved in a social movement—ousting a dictator, or the [American] civil rights movement—that’s when change occurs.
That’s where I wound up with this. Going back to the search party theme, are we all just walking past our own rescuers? People I know, people of good conscience, are thinking about these things, doing all sort of kindness and care. And yet when it comes to doing it on any bigger level, most of us don’t know what to do!
What I was interested in, as I kept reading about what people have done in different time periods, is that things took a lot longer than people thought, and what was needed was sustained collective action. Mandela went to prison for 21 years, I think, before apartheid finally came to an end. And in Argentina, people were disappearing, and the mothers and grandmothers of the people who were disappearing wore their kerchiefs embroidered with the names of the missing people and went to the squares for years and years. They were called the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
This one book—Beautiful Trouble—is allowing me to try to be an activist. It is the best fucking book. It has all these examples of different movements cross-referenced with principles, theories, tactics. And it has case studies at the end. All these different people wrote it but Andrew Boyd, whom I just met, assembled it. There’s a website for it, too. The reason I was sold on it? It says things like “Beware the tyranny of structurelessness.” And “No one wants to go to your drum circle.” And I was like, oh, thank God.
Guernica: Trying to prepare in ways that might have real impact? In ways that actually make some sort of sense?
Offill: People obsessively do things for their children. I went through a period where I was just basically ruining dinner parties and playground chat with my doomer jokes. Some parent would say, “It might be really important to learn Mandarin.” And I’d say, “How about archery?” One of the reasons we really, really struggle with climate change is that we don’t know what to do with a model where we might be terminally ill.
Ernest Becker, who wrote The Denial of Death, called cities an “immortality project.” A child is an immortality project. This book is an immortality project. Everything is about how you can literally live on—which some religions will give you, and what culture is about. If for nothing else, I wrote the book, worrying the whole time that by tackling climate change I would be writing a bad book, which to me is the nightmare. This is what I do all the time; I don’t want it to be bad.
But at a certain point, I didn’t want to say to my daughter, “yeah, I knew but I wasn’t sure what to do.” You know, I bet there are things to do. Somebody might know.