The remains of a bush fire in Bell, New South Wales, Australia on Jan. 28, 2020. (Matthew Abbott/The New York Times)

Matthew Abbott / The New York Times

February 16, 2020

YANDAVA | Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’ and the Atmosphere of Anxiety

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We are living in an age of anxiety. Both our literal and political climates seem to be collapsing around us, increasingly portentous, inevitable and awful. The people who could do something don’t care, and the people who do care often don’t have the power to do much about it. The worst thing, though, is that such problems — especially climate change — take place on scales so large or collective that individual action looks insignificant in the face of them.

Perhaps no greater medium captures the tensions between scales — individual and collective, human and geological, local and global — than narrative, which necessitates the intricate minutiae of human happenings at the same time as it makes a bid for the universal.

In Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather, the narrator Lizzie Benson navigates her roles as college librarian, wife, mother and sister of a brother recovering from addiction. In addition, she wrestles with the new role of answering fan letters for her former professor’s podcast (Hell and High Water) that deals with the issues of climate change. Between going to P.T.A. meetings and helping her brother learn how to take care of his infant daughter, Lizzie manages to make astute, piercing observations about the state of affairs we currently inhabit. After a visit to a dermatologist who tells her every mark on her body is “exceedingly unlikely to be cancerous,” Lizzie tells the reader, “I wanted every day to be like this, to begin in shame and fear and end in glorious reassurance.” Lizzie’s declaration reminds the reader that every day is not like this. The “shame and fear” of problems larger than ourselves probably — and typically — won’t “end in glorious reassurance.” However, it also suggests that the mundane gives us something to hold onto in dark times, a semblance of meaning and control when things appear to be spiraling ever out of our control.

This sense is amplified by the sparse, fragmented style of Offill’s prose. Her method of fusing together everyday observations, personal anecdotes and clever distillations results in an effective capturing of the uniquely human experience of feeling like we’re on the inside looking out at a confusing and chaotic universe. In the novel, Lizzie and her husband make preparations for their “doomstead,” a property they’ll bunker down in when the inevitable doomsday arrives. Although Lizzie expresses a desire to “channel all of this dread into action,” her preferred solution — retreat — highlights the seeming impossibility of collective solutions, the indifference inherent in external, large-scale disasters. “There’s no hope anymore, only witness,” says Sylvia, Lizzie’s former professor who runs the podcast.

In Weather, Offill indicates that the personal, the individual, emotional minutiae, can serve as coping mechanisms for dealing with the terror of climate change. In transferring the geological scale onto a human scale, we’re able to (somewhat) conceptualize it and grapple with it. However, inasmuch as the scale of climate change is much larger than the scale of our human problems, our human problems carry a deeper emotional force, an inherent empathy that the problems of our planet can’t compete with. Although individual human actions have contributed to climate change, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that “composting toilets and water conservation and electric cars and how to live lightly on the earth while thinking ahead for seven generations” might not save us. Nevertheless, to do otherwise — to forsake “hope” and become a mere passive “witness” — would be a gross immorality.

Since the beginning of this millennium, the term “Anthropocene” has come to signify our current geological age, an era in which human activity has had significant impact on Earth’s climate, ecosystems and geology. The increasing prominence of ecocriticism demonstrates that the literature and culture of the Anthropocene can be just as important in making sense of it as scientific study.

Moreover, books like Offill’s indicate that the novel, too, can act as a kind of laboratory — one for understanding our own emotional responses to impersonal, external forces and testing out different modes of being in the world. In doing so, the novel allows us to make sense of the now, even as the future marches closer and closer towards us. 

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.