Jenny Offill’s lapidary masterwork, “Weather,” is about unstable climates and families.
Meteorologists look for patterns where none might exist in attempting to predict the weather. Mothers look for patterns too, in attempting to predict family disturbances. Both of these augurers get a lot wrong a lot of the time. But when their red alerts turn out to be accurate, woe betide those who ignore them.
In Jenny Offill’s remarkable and resonant new novel, “Weather,” a middle-aged mom named Lizzie contends with a kind but passive husband, Ben; their somewhere-on-the-spectrum son, Eli; a more definitively troubled brother, Henry; and Henry’s ambivalent new wife. That’s not to mention Lizzie’s mother, her boss, her frenemy Nicola, a neighborhood bigot and a host of other people she’s stuck between wanting to please and asking to please go away.
Those who have read Offill’s 2014 novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” a book specifically about adultery, will recognize the author’s style, a pastiche of pithy scenes, jokes, adages and ephemera. Like her contemporaries Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk and Jenny Erpenbeck, Offill eschews traditional storytelling in order to pursue deeper meaning and coherence, although in this book she doesn’t stray into autofiction’s hall of mirrors in the way that, say, Olivia Laing did in her 2018 novel, “Crudo.”
Offill may not be the first to employ this style, but those who encounter it for the first time in “Weather” may need a page or three to adjust. If you haven’t started smiling and nodding and empathetically rolling your eyes by Page 10, this may not be the book for you. Offill doesn’t just ask you to jump from idea to idea, or to make connections between disparate ones; the rhythm of her composition invites you to make your own segues from waltz to jig, hustle to mambo.
Lizzie works at a university, where she is known as a “feral librarian” because she doesn’t have a master’s degree (having dropped out of a graduate program to care for Henry). It’s just an accidental position that allows her to comb through archives while serving as an assistant to Sylvie, a public intellectual. Sylvie runs a popular podcast about climate change and spends a lot of time traveling the world, leaving Lizzie to handle her correspondence.
“One caveat: the mail has been skewing evangelical lately,” says Sylvie. “Her mistake was calling her show ‘Hell and High Water.’ Guaranteed to attract the end-timers,” Lizzie quips — though before long she is collecting tips on surviving the apocalypse.
Meanwhile, she shepherds Eli past a barricade of school caregivers, paying painfully close attention to his interests and projects, and at first we think: Oh, another helicopter mother; how dreary. But then we meet Lizzie’s brother and begin to understand that her hovering over Eli stems — like her end-times preparations — from justified paranoia. She’s not clinging to her son because she is incomplete. She’s watching over him in a way that might be just as unhealthy, searching Eli for signs of Henry’s mental anguish.
Lizzie’s parenting style evolves through brief but intense scenes, and gradually we learn more about her troubled brother. Henry has long passed from young man uncomfortable in his own body to older man filling that body with substances; he enters the story fresh from an NA meeting.
Lizzie’s friend Margot tells her that she and Henry are not just close but “enmeshed.” Yet as Henry becomes involved with an advertising executive, Catherine, Lizzie starts to believe that her burden can be handed over to someone else. Henry asks his sister what will happen if he sabotages his new marriage. “You will be forgiven,” she tells him.
Offill’s genius lies in tightly sewing together the small moments that make up a particular life and the huge questions that keep us all awake at night. For example, Lizzie relies too much on an old-school car service run by “Mr. Jimmy,” both because of her osteoarthritic knee and because she fears she may be his last regular customer.
As Lizzie frets over the 2016 election, Offill’s tight fabric bares a visible seam: “Q: What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos? A: You can teach them to sew, to farm, to build. Techniques for calming a fearful mind might be most useful though.” Even the affable and always-together Ben (once a PhD in classics, now a video-game coder) starts to fray, worrying about insurance and household repairs and prepping for the end of the world.
The most memorable bits of the book may be the threads that Offill leaves dangling, orphan snippets and jokes you can’t help laughing at. (“We don’t serve time travelers here.”/ ”A time traveler walks into a bar.”) These breaks also accrue meaning, working like Zen koans that apply to different parts of the story. If, at first, a spiritual question refers to global warming, later it might address the determinism of family origins.
In composing “Dept. of Speculation,” Offill famously wrote all of her sections on index cards and shuffled them until she arrived at the right combination, but in “Weather” there appears to be less shuffling and more deliberation. That is not a bad thing at all. It takes nothing away from the power of “Speculation” to report that “Weather” is simply a better book — a disorienting but precise dissection of the way we live now and the way we’ve always lived. The weather we have is frightful. The problems we have seem insurmountable.
Maybe they are — Lizzie’s as well as our own. Yet in the middle of things, Henry and Catherine have a girl, Iris. In a lesser novel, introducing a baby as a symbol of hope might feel lazy and trite. Here, Iris becomes part of the pattern, a harbinger of difficult times ahead, another person in need of care. But she is also perhaps an answer to a question central to the book. The last line of “Weather” is: “The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.” If we really are all in this together, in bad weather and in good, then attempting to predict how it will all turn out might not be the work we’re here to do.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
Knopf: 224 pages; $23.95