A few months ago, when American writer Jenny Offill’s latest novel Weather became available in India, I could not brace myself to pick up a copy at first. The blurb was promising enough, the book had been nominated for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020, but the grimness of the pandemic made me shirk from what seemed to be fiction portending the end of days. Real life was bad enough, thank you.
But recent events in Texas and California, along with the hue and cry over a supposedly blasphemous ‘toolkit’ circulated by a twenty-something climate activist from India, made me get hold of it. Fiction always seems to make better sense of the times than the daily absurdities of the news cycle, and any warning a novel has to offer about the climate apocalypse and authoritarianism—the two central themes of Offill’s book—is likely to hit home harder than inert scientific statistics or decibel-shattering debates on television news.
In spite of its doomsday air, Weather proved to be a much more fortifying read than I had hoped for. To begin with, it is a slender novel, written in episodic bursts, as Offill’s previous one, Dept. of Speculation. There isn’t much of a plot, though, much like a jigsaw puzzle, a picture begins to emerge in the reader’s mind gradually. Navigating this quick-witted narrative is like trying to put bits of information and premonition together to see if they fit. It’s a sophisticated exercise in reading that may not be obvious to the reader from the start.
This narrative strategy also reflects the way most of us live now—content with scraps of information scavenged from the internet, quick to joy or rage by a 280-word post on Twitter, removed from the more taxing pleasures of reading longer and cohesive books that impart knowledge and wisdom, and ill at ease with the idea of interacting with people in real life.
The protagonist of Weather is Lizzie Benson, a grad school dropout in the US who is employed as a librarian, though she is underqualified for the job. Her husband Ben is a lapsed academic as well, a classicist who designs educational video games for a living. Their son Eli is bright and inquisitive; it’s his innocent, often exacting, presence that acts as a foil to the paranoia and dejection that assail his parents—both of whom are existentially wobbly, unsure and diffident. In spite of its nimble progression and periodic jokes, Weather is a story about learning to find one’s feet, when the ground beneath is clumsy and treacherous.
Lizzie is troubled not only by the impending presidential elections—the 2016 polls that would catapult Donald Trump into the hot seat—and every other menace that stalks contemporary life, but she is also tasked with caring for her dysfunctional brother, Henry, even at the peril of putting her own marriage at risk. Henry is a recovering addict, a failure at his own marriage, a father to an infant daughter who can barely look after himself. It’s up to Lizzie to hold him up, while he strives to stay the course.
Her own crises—hypochondria over the fear of contracting “knee cancer” (it turns out to be arthritis), or killing the wrong mouse who infests the kitchen—seem mundane compared to the colossal mess he is in. But such are the times that seemingly trivial fears turn into apparitions of morbid dread without much provocation. As Ben puts it, Lizzie sometimes behaves like a “crazy doomer”—a description that probably applies to most of us on days when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
Reprieve, and some comic relief, comes to Lizzie in the form of Sylvia, a former professor, now a podcaster with a show called "Hell and High Water". Sylvia employs Lizzie to answer her burgeoning correspondence from listeners, who range from right-wing nutters and climate-change deniers to shrill left-wing rationalists with questions about wind turbines and seeking advice to escape the upcoming catastrophe. If Lizzie’s tussle with such queries and conspiracy theories provides flashes of amusement, such passages also become dismal reminders of the fact that people like these surround us now, no matter where we live in, online or off it.
Weather is a curiously comforting read, though it may take a bit of getting used to for those who are dislike having their novels with bite-sized plot points. Yet, as our lives are upturned by the revolutions of the news cycle unfolding on 24x7 on social media, this fragmented format feels truer to our predicament than the familiar comforts of a neatly ordered conventional narrative.
The great theme of Offill’s story—the subliminal but relentless flow of anxiety about the future—is the stuff that pervades our waking hours and sleep. It’s in the air everywhere—be it freezing Texas and drying California, or among poor farmers in India, staring at drought, crop failure and late capitalist market economy.