Novel: Weather by Jenny Offill

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 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 picture. 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.

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