A Ballad of Unchecked Dread

A Ballad of Unchecked Dread

In Weather, Jenny Offill explores how our sense that society is on the cusp of disaster takes hold.

Jenny Offill’s Weather tracks its protagonist’s emotional unraveling over fears of everything from fascism to climate change. (Baldeaglebluff/Flickr)

Weather: A novel
by Jenny Offill
Knopf, 2020, 224 pp.

In Jenny Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, a troubled marriage triggers a crisis in perception. How did her husband’s infidelity, the protagonist wonders, go unnoticed? “I am not very observant,” she thinks, but the truth is that there wasn’t much to observe. Offill’s form, whereby narrative proceeds as a series of intimations, teaches us that destabilizing change doesn’t appear as discrete signs, but rather hangs in the air. Our most intimate relationships are subject to atmospheric shifts that we don’t know so much as feel on the level of the body. When the narrator finally realizes her husband’s infidelity, it is only after she reconsiders a handful of disparate interactions. She remembers an innocent question he once asked her in a café: “When were you the happiest? Something she should have seen then, something about the look on his face, the way the air changed in that moment.” The memory induces an assault on her senses. “She feels hot then cold then hot again. I noticed particularly,” she thinks, narrating her own life in the third person. The book’s project is to trace how we register changes in our reality when such changes happen just under the threshold of our perception.

But if Speculation wants clarity on our perception of the world, it also betrays a fear that we all see it differently—and that this difference has implications for how we experience intimacy. So when Lizzie, the protagonist of Offill’s latest novel, Weather, observes that she and her husband, Ben, “never notice the same things,” we can’t help but feel a jolt of anxiety. One time, she remembers, she came home to find Ben excited that “they finally took it down.” “Took what down? I asked. And he had to explain that the scaffolding that had covered the front of our building for years was finally gone.” If their consciences register different phenomena, Lizzie worries, perhaps they live in different worlds. But Weather’s purview is broader than Speculation’s. A wider cast of characters allows Offill to consider the sorts of intimacy that exist beyond family structures. Taking place just before and after the 2016 U.S. election, the novel tracks Lizzie’s emotional unraveling over fears of everything from fascism to climate change. Offill presents the contemporary United States as a place where civic care has all but evaporated and anxiety infects every possible relationship. Casting her eye across this condition, she still wonders how we might build intimacy at any level when we are hemmed in by what we perceive. In Weather, Offill uses the literary form she invented in Speculation to turn a pervasive sense of worry over the future into a web of shared perception.

 

When Weather opens, Lizzie is a lapsed graduate student who’s transitioned into life as a librarian. At work she spends her days besieged by oddballs. She has a young son named Eli and Ben at home, and though her homelife is mostly stable, she finds herself mired in the emotional dramas of her brother Henry, a recovering addict. When her former doctoral adviser offers her a part-time assistant job, she accepts. “[Sylvia] looks tired, I think, a little blurred around the edges,” Lizzie observes, spinning her need for extra income into a form of charity. “I should help her. I say yes, okay, why not, sure.”

Sylvia is a famous academic who hosts a popular podcast about climate change and environmental disaster called Hell and High Water, and part of Lizzie’s new job is to answer the correspondence from apocalyptically minded listeners. She is confronted with messages from Bible thumpers, conspiracy theorists, technology-worshipping cultists, and madmen: “Is the Insectothopter like the AlphaCheetah? Does extinction matter since we know how the Bible ends? Who invented contrails? How will the last generation know it is the last generation?” One listener writes in to warn of impending genocide, giving the example that “Some Jews saw walls being built around the ghetto and thought they still had time.” Sylvia takes her to academic conferences and lavish dinners with Silicon Valley techno-optimists who turn out to be death-obsessed millennialists, awaiting the day when “what is falling away will be gone, and . . . there won’t be any more talk of what has been lost, only of what has been gained.”

This frenzy of fear and suspicion isn’t limited to Hell and High Water’s listeners. Donald Trump’s voice echoes through Lizzie’s apartment: “He wants to build a wall. It will have a beautiful door, he says.” Meanwhile, she avoids her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Kovinski, who tends toward xenophobic rants about Chinese newspapers left on her doorstep. The election is only one symptom of global disarray. An increasingly depressed Henry watches “those scenes of refugees trying to make their way to safety over and over again,” and wonders if he could walk thirty-four miles carrying a child on his back. A war journalist with whom Lizzie has an emotional fling tells her that the atmosphere reminds him of the prelude to war. “He says it feels the way it does just before it starts. It’s a weird thing, but you learn to pick up on it . . . It’s there in the air somehow. The whole thing is more physical than mental, he tells me.”

This all takes a toll. By the time Trump wins the presidency, Hell and High Water has submerged Lizzie in a world of doomsayers. Out come her survivalist tendencies. Where she used to cautioned the show’s audience that their concerns might be best addressed by researching “techniques for calming a fearful mind,” she now recommends that they read “a Yale historian” (Timothy Snyder) for tips on surviving in a fascist state. She starts to order “books about Vichy France and the French Resistance and more books than any civilian could possibly need about spy craft and fascism.” When the family visits the Spy Museum in D.C., Lizzie and Eli learn that a pair of cyanide-tipped eyeglasses might come in handy in case of an authoritarian future. Meanwhile, Ben considers fleeing America for Israel. Their panic is hilarious in its painful familiarity.

Offill renders this panic as a series of recurring tropes. Lizzie deals with the aforementioned library patrons, relies on the services of an unreliable driver named Mr. Jimmy, and spends time attending a meditation class. The novel’s movement doesn’t derive from plot. Lizzie’s fragmented observations function like musical notes undergoing the process of composition: their significance only coheres as she juxtaposes and rearranges them, creating a ballad of unchecked dread.

Formally, Weather is a companion piece to Speculation. The book’s power builds through the patient, hypnotic percolation of motifs, until the reader feels as overwhelmed by gloom as Lizzie does. Offill is exploring the surprising ways that affect circulates, and how a sense that society is on the cusp of disaster takes hold. Lizzie begins to see patterns everywhere. “Sometimes I like to ask my boss about little patterns I notice at the library . . . How come three different people came in today and wanted to put up flyers about beekeeping?” The boss shrugs. “Some things are in the air, they float around,” she offers. Of course, though, the obsession with beekeeping is also an obsession with colony collapse disorder and the effects of climate change. But while the end of the world is certainly on everyone’s minds, the weather of the book’s title slowly reveals itself not to be primarily climatological, but social. How can we tell which way the winds of social upheaval are blowing in a time when environmental, political, and civic erosion are merging?

The problem is that, unlike in Speculation, simply registering these shifts doesn’t hold out hope of preventing the future they augur. Everyone notices “that hum in the air,” that sense that “Everyone everywhere is talking about the same thing.” “Your people have fallen into history,” an Iranian friend whose family fled the Islamic Republic tells Lizzie. “The rest of us are already here.” The question becomes not how to notice, but what to do with that noticing. Noticing feels like the problem, as Lizzie’s perception leaves her feeling stupefied.

Weather posits that there is something fundamentally incomprehensible about the contours of contemporary life and therefore alienating, even threatening. One listener calls in: “What do you mean by interconnected?” he asks. It’s a scary question, suggesting that the very meaning of living within an ecology—with the environment, and with the people who inhabit that environment alongside you—has been lost to a moment when, like Lizzie, we are beset by information, institutions, and phenomena that are inhuman in scale. In this book, “society” comes to denote an archipelago of disarticulated people, all looking out on the world through different eyes, all struggling to read the signs cascading down around them, all reaching different conclusions. Lizzie dreams of neighbors who speak civilly despite their differences. Instead she has Mrs. Kovinski, who brings Lizzie her copy of the Sunday New York Times. “I see you’ve got your poison paper,” she chides.

 

In his 1977 book Marxism and Literature, literary theorist Raymond Williams ventured that effective cultural analysis cannot restrict itself to questions of dominant hegemonic forces. Cultural analysis must also concern itself with emergent cultural norms—“new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships.” The difficulty in locating these values and forms is that they are speculative. It requires that we find “new forms or adaptations of form” that are “active and pressing but not yet fully articulated.” For Williams, this meant thinking about how people actually live and feel their values—in essence, turning our attention away from the edifices of coherent beliefs, toward a “structure of feeling” in which ideology comes into friction with collective lived experience.

With Weather, Offill uses her speculative, aphoristic form to take our vague, and often individual, sense that something is wrong and turn it into a collective consciousness. Lizzie doesn’t always feel like a singular character—her tendency toward pattern recognition can make her seem like a manifestation of authorial intelligence. But that tendency is also what makes Lizzie a compelling literary creation, a synecdoche for the panic of an entire segment of American society. Even as Lizzie’s heightened perception connotes alarm, Offill’s representation of that panic allows her to recast contemporary anxieties and misgivings as opportunities to observe structures of feeling coming into being. The juxtapositions that Offill orchestrates in this novel—Eli’s unfortunate fascination with a robot named Samantha, for example, who only operates in “family” and “sex” modes, set against the backdrop of Trump’s rise—trains us to notice how society thrives and dies at the level of the quotidian. I couldn’t help but register something different about Samantha; her presence strikes me as a moment of potential emergence, when Eli is learning a lesson about the nature of his relation to the feminine—an instance in which the production of new technology can encourage new understandings of gender hierarchies. Instead, when Samantha later appears at a European tech conference, it’s as a victim. “Too many men tried to test her at once, and by the end of the day she was heavily soiled and had two broken fingers,” Offill writes.

Lizzie appears frequently overwhelmed by the feelings of those around her. She struggles to know where best to direct her attention and care: Her troubled brother? Her husband and son? Preparation for the apocalypse? Meditation? Though many of the problems Lizzie wrestles with are political, the novel seems to hold out little hope for effective collective action. After visiting an immigrant detention facility with a prayer group, Lizzie’s mother recounts how they “were not allowed to talk to the people being held there, but . . . stood outside the barbed wire fence and sang in hopes of cheering them.” The group leaves crosses on a tree outside the facility. Proud of this gesture, Lizzie’s mom sends her a picture of “a spindly tree . . . the only tree visible from the prison.” It’s clear that for the narrator, there is something limp and ineffective about this image.

Where does this leave us? As the novel ends, Offill returns us to the scene of the domestic. Lizzie has settled into something akin to familial bliss. She was flirting with the war journalist while Ben and Eli were away on a trip, but eventually came to cherish the memory of the “warm hum of [Ben’s] body next to me in bed. Certain little jokes and kindnesses.” In the end, she gets that comfort (along with a device to help her stop grinding her teeth). One is left with the impression Lizzie has walked away from the possibility of a more expansive empathy in favor of a proper appreciation of domestic life’s joys. It is a soothing vision, Offill suggests, but not one that will offer satisfying answers to the hard questions of political fragmentation and climate crisis.


Ismail Muhammad is the criticism editor at the Believer. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, and other venues.


Lima