In Jenny Offill’s New Novel, a Librarian Meets Doomsday Preppers
Readers best know Jenny Offill for her second novel, Dept. of Speculation, written in a fragmentary style. Her newest book, Weather, is similarly choppy. It has the spontaneity of elliptical poetry and of Jack Kerouac, absent his amphetamine-fueled toxic masculinity and sneering disregard for grammar and punctuation. It’s a subtle book, and more than a bit sneaky, full of useful facts and asides, jokes you will repeat to friends, and doomsday-prepper acronyms. It serves as a field guide to the Zeitgeist–or, to be more accurate, to our current predicament, better described as the Scheisszeit.
The fact that Weather’s narrator, Lizzie, is a Ph.D. program dropout who works in a university library particularly struck a chord with me, a former academic librarian. She brings to life the full spectrum of academia’s cast of characters, plasma-selling adjuncts and all. Lizzie moonlights replying to letters seeking advice from her former academic mentor, a lecturer on climate change. This propels her into a world of doomsday preppers, and unleashes on her life a deluge of gloomy factoids which she communicates to us with saintly intensity.
I found Lizzie implicitly trustworthy and felt right at home with her, as though I could simultaneously be friends with her and also be her. In the middle of reading Weather, I paid a visit to the picture-book section of my public library, where I found three of Offill’s wonderful books for young readers: While You Were Napping (illustrated by Barry Blitt), a maddeningly detailed catalog narrated to a toddler, describing the outrageous fun he missed while he napped; 11 Experiments That Failed, and 17 Things I’m Not Allowed To Do Anymore (both illustrated by Nancy Carpenter).
The latter two both feature an impulsive female protagonist with a strong curiosity, wicked sense of humor, and a penchant for getting in trouble (“I had an idea to freeze a dead fly in the ice cube tray. I am not allowed to make ice anymore.”) There’s a family resemblance between the protagonist of these books and Lizzie in Weather, although the trouble Lizzie stirs up is less cartoonish in nature, and mostly internalized.
I kept writing associations in the margins as I read, like some crazed Talmud scholar. When I noticed a new type of input joining the din of the book’s narrative, I scrawled contrapuntal radio, recalling Glenn Gould’s eccentric, multi-layered, and almost unlistenable radio documentaries for the CBC. Bricolage, I noted, indicating the use of a mixed-media style of writing, when a freestanding sentence appeared teaching me the Greek word for withdrawal to the desert. Lizzie is a filter for the Internet and the universe, and she never shuts off. Reading Weather feels like discovering a box of index cards belonging to a scholar who also does standup comedy.
The book serves as a time capsule of some of the public’s sentiment following the 2016 election, capturing what was important to us then (like getting IUDs, or seriously assessing what other citizenships we could adopt). Sudden suspicions of our neighbors arose in us as we wondered who they voted for, really (“One of you will betray me. But which? Is it you, Mrs. Kovinski?”). It would be nice to feel now that we made the right choices, but ultimately, we were just grasping at random Things To Do that made very little difference to the children in cages. Weather isn’t judging us for what we did, though. Also, it makes us laugh.
Towards the end of the book, Lizzie reports on her mother’s plan to go get her teeth fixed at a dental clinic. The ordeal she will need to undergo in order to have that happen is an apt description of our current situation: “People come from much farther, from miles and miles away, so many that when you get there, there is a lottery system to see who gets to have their pain taken away. America is the name of this place where you can win big.”
(Knopf, February 11, 2020)