Not what you’d expect from a book about Climate Change, Jenny Offill’s Weather was something of a relief for this month’s Reading Group. It manages to portray the anxiety, grief and complexity around the subject with humour and lightness in just a couple of hundred pages and was much appreciated by the majority of our readers. There was plenty to talk about – we agreed, disagreed, asked questions and still hadn’t covered everything by the time the session was supposed to end.
The ‘story’ is told through the eyes of Lizzie, a librarian in New York City, as she learns more about the Climate Crisis and we follow her transformation from what Jenny Offill has called ‘a state of twilight knowing’ to a more conscious awareness of what’s at stake. Offill says this was the spark for her writing the book: ‘I became interested in why I wasn’t more interested.’ Probably she felt the same as Lizzie – ‘Environmentalists are so dreary’.
We were interested in the blur between Jenny and Lizzie, noticing how the novel veered into autofiction and functioned perhaps as a more personal way of navigating fear and uncertainty, exaggerated around the time of the 2016 US election. Trump haunts the book, an unnamed presence. After he wins, Lizzie’s husband Ben asks starkly ‘Should we get a gun?’ The atmosphere is the same as after 9/11, when her Iranian friend told Lizzie ‘Your people have finally fallen into history…the rest of us are already here’.
She becomes fascinated with the ‘preppers’, obsessively researching their survivalist strategies, feeling some of their lifeboat paranoia, stocking up on lighters and noting their isolationist acronyms (DTA – Don’t trust anyone, YOYO – You’re on your own etc). Despite her sassy ironic tone, it’s evident a lot of pain and conflict runs through Lizzie’s relationships – particularly with her volatile brother Henry, bright young son Eli and her lonely mother – increasingly sensing they are beyond her control and she can’t help everybody however hard she tries. Even her resilient activist friend and mentor Sylvia, who Lizzie works with on her Climate podcast Hell and High Water, ends up thinking ‘there’s no hope anymore, only witness’ – ‘All she wants now is to go somewhere quiet and dark’.
A few members of the group didn’t warm to Lizzie, finding her perspective and concerns alien to their own experience and presented in too fragmented a form. Adam Mars Jones in the London Review of Books also wonders ‘How can an aesthetic that exalts the fragment serve the human agenda of reconnecting us with the terrible things we would rather not think about?’
Offill’s chosen mode of short paragraphs and sections, in a range of registers, incorporating quotes and Q & A and jokes, does make for a quick, compelling read, reflecting the distracted quality of most people’s attention. Every single page is memorable, quotable and resonant. The spaces between each section have their own eloquence, allowing room for the reader’s interpretation and imagination. Jenny Offill doesn’t tell us what to think or offer any neat solutions. She just presents situations and conversations, gleanings from the library of Lizzie’s thoughts and online trawling, and we must find our own version of events amid the tangle, knowing that we too are implicated in this particular ‘story’ from which there’s no escape.
The Buddhist thread of mindfulness and interconnectedness as a way of making sense of Climate Change was a pleasing link with our last read Thich Nhat Hanh’s Love Letter to the Earth. The final powerful sentence highlights its importance: ‘The core delusion is that I am here and you are there’. And even though it is a powerful ending, we are left in no doubt that this story isn’t over – not least because it isn’t a story.
Next month we’ll return to the world of poetry with Jane Hirshfield’s Ledger (Bloodaxe 2020) – 8th September at 6pm.
Till then, take care,