I couldn’t have picked a better time to read — or perhaps the better word is decode — Jenny Offill’s remarkable Weather (2020), a contemporary mainstream novel that superbly captures the dizzying, scary nature of living in America in this moment in history. Eluding easy summary, the novel is basically a whirlwind of compressed micro-stories that detail the daily efforts of a beleaguered librarian named Lizzie. Lizzie has a stable marriage, a son, a troubled brother, and a head full of worries, which are quickly stirred up when she takes a side hustle answering correspondence for an old college mentor, who has made a name for herself with a forward-thinking podcast called Hell and High Water. Delving into the concerns of the podcast’s listeners, Lizzie finds her constant focus on looming crises — from climate change to political upheaval to potential societal collapse — starts to have a chilling, disorienting effect on her mental state.
Weather is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. It’s a little like spending time in someone else’s brain, gradually gleaning fragments of insight about them from the minutiae of their thought processes. This makes it a challenging novel to get into, since the details and anecdotes of Lizzie’s life are introduced in tight, specific bursts. It’s left to the reader to assemble these pieces — people, places, relationships, and so forth — into a coherent setting. But once everything comes into context, the prose becomes increasingly compelling, and themes crystallize that are as relatable as they are powerful. How does one live ethically in a world of unethical systems? How can one find meaning in normal, day-to-day things when everything is suddenly abnormal? How does one live for the future when it feels like there may not be one? Offill does not answer these questions — who could? — but she speaks to them with compassion, intelligence, and wit. As such, it perfectly accesses the thinking progressive’s background radiation of despair, and does so in a way that makes that reader feel less alone. And it’s done with such concise eloquence; no scene is longer than a page, and many are just a few sentences, but they somehow feel complete, a staccato parade of punched-home insights. Fifty years from now, if people are still around to read novels, they may look back on Weather as a disconcerting but illuminating time capsule, empathetically capturing the mood of a nation during a time of compounded crises.