FEBRUARY 13, 2020
NO ONE REALLY KNOWS how to live in an era of ecological disaster, watching famines and extinctions unfold on our small screens with the promise of far greater catastrophe on the near horizon. We send money to the charred koalas and kangaroos; we march in Greta Thunberg’s rallies; we urge our relatives to vote for the climate-forward candidates. We remind each other to focus care and attention on the marginalized communities that climate change is hitting first, and on the people whose voices seldom make it to the global or national stage. None of these efforts will stave off the global warming already built into the system for at least the next several hundred years — even the most optimistic scientists talk of limiting climate change and adapting to its ravages, not reversing the temperature rise and sending the sea back to its Holocene bounds.
How do we carry on without succumbing to the despair and nihilism that only the wealthy can afford? Kate Aronoff recently observed that many of the calls for climate defeatism come from successful male novelists who have relatively little to lose as the result of climate change. Maybe the willingness of Franzen, Foer, and the rest to place the planet on palliative care stems from the fact that American literature has usually assumed that the future would be better than the past. With the prospect of an ever-brighter future removed, these men can’t envision any livable way forward.
In her brief, brilliant third novel Weather, Jenny Offill tries harder. The question of how to navigate the present while preparing for a climate-changed future preoccupies her narrator. When the novel opens in present-day New York, Lizzie, a middle-aged librarian already facing a mountain of domestic worries, has taken on a side gig answering emails for her former academic advisor, whose climate podcast Hell and High Water has left her inbox flooded with comments from hippies and evangelical doomsayers alike.
Newly forced to confront the realities of climate change in her daily life, Lizzie assuages her climate anxiety by researching coping mechanisms, factoids about human nature, and doomsday preparations online. Lizzie and her husband are both thwarted academics, people who wanted to live the life of the mind in public but have had to succumb to middle-class compromise and turn their intellectual impulses inward. Ben, a classicist turned coder, lies in bed reading big books about empires of the ancient past. Lizzie, a would-be psychologist, redirects her clinical talents to her troubled brother; her survivalist “research” feeds her own neuroses rather than a university career.
Offill interrupts the narrative regularly with brief anecdotes, predictions of dire future climate scenarios, and some of the survival ideas that Lizzie discovers. Through Lizzie, readers learn how to calm the mind in the face of fear, how to start a fire with a foil gum wrapper and a battery, how to make a lamp out of a piece of string and a can of oil-packed tuna. Offill delivers these instructions in language whose cheerful earnestness reveals the abjection of the projects described: “Your new oil lamp will burn for almost two hours and the tuna will still be good to eat afterward,” one explains. Knowing how to ignite our fish and eat it too sounds like a promising trick for scarce times, sure. But no one is looking forward to a future in which we must burn tuna oil for a couple hours of meager, fish-flavored light.
Though it is concerned with climate change in the future, however, Weather is set in near-past and present New York in conditions that feel much like ours (the 2016 election occurs in the middle of the novel and precipitates a descent into deeper, more omnipresent panic). In this sense, Weather joins a small but growing canon of novels that take climate change and environmental degradation as a central conflict, yet do not construct the speculative future apocalypse scenarios that have defined the now well-established genre of cli-fi. Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 have also brought climate fiction into the present day. Offill’s techniques are closest to those of Lerner, another New York writer. Both novelists juxtapose the ordinariness of present-day domestic life with wild changes predicted for the future to show how the mismatch between our mundane actions and terrifying thoughts as climate change looms. Here is a sentence from 10:04 in which the narrator takes a child to a museum and tries to keep him entertained: “I bought him a sixty-dollar T-rex puzzle because I would make strong six figures and the city would soon be underwater.” The slippage from the child’s toy to the apocalyptic scenario occurs within a single sentence. Offill writes shorter sentences, and in Weather she makes the same move in three, as Lizzie watches her son and husband interact: “Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures by 2047.” In both cases, engaging with a child — the representative of the future — stimulates thoughts of the future that climate change will deny him.
Unlike Lerner and Ward, however, Offill narrates no dangerous hurricane; unlike Kingsolver and Ghosh, she includes no climate-induced change in the behavior of animal species; unlike Powers, she attempts no ecoterrorist sublot; indeed, Weather contains almost no plot outside of Lizzie’s intimate familial sphere. Yet Weather holds its own with the strongest examples of the new non-speculative climate fiction. It has the feel of a new classic, the kind of book that future humans will read in order to figure out what people were thinking in the early decades of the 21st century, when they knew they were creating a crisis and yet were doing nothing to rein it in.
Lizzie is aware that she is herself a part of the problem of humans doing nothing. One paragraph, after a taxing day at work, opens with this perfect sentence: “I take the car service home because I’m ridiculous.” It is a precise encapsulation of the way so many of us behave in a society that allows us to do what is convenient rather than what is right — for our wallets, for our neighbors, for the carbon concentration in the atmosphere. It captures, too, the way we chastise ourselves for consuming the luxuries made available to us through carbon capitalism, and simultaneously we continue to consume them.
The success of Weather is the result, first, of her impeccable sentences: spare on the surface but dense with meaning. When you have been spending time with Offill’s prose, all other sentences seem suddenly baggy, embarrassingly rambling, self-indulgent, imprecise. On the one hand, I wish Weather were longer because I would have liked to spend more time with its intelligent narrator, allowing her to select endless snippets of wisdom and foolishness from the vast library of her mind. On the other hand, Offill’s restraint is admirable: it must have taken a great deal of effort to avoid writing a clunky book by commenting on every paratext she selected. Each sentence that made it into a book is a perfectly cut and polished jewel. Offill threw away everything else, allowing the reader to fill in the ample white space with their own projections of our strange future — one in which we know with certainty that climate catastrophe is coming for even the most well off and stable among us, but we don’t know exactly when or in what form the catastrophe will come. This combination of certainty and uncertainty is in itself an intellectual crisis, a chronic crisis that will be with us for the rest of our lives. From now on, every moment of our lives might become an acute crisis, whether through flood, heat, or drought. We had better be prepared.
Middle-class Americans like Lizzie are terribly lucky that we are only now beginning to live in this precarious way. Lizzie is aware of her own misfortune to live on the eve of environmental catastrophe, but Weather would have been stronger if she also acknowledged her good fortune to go into the storm as an educated white American with a professional salary, which means that her suffering will pale in comparison to that of her global compatriots and even many of her Brooklyn neighbors who don’t have her systemic advantages. By displacing the climate crisis entirely into the near-future, too, Lizzie seems not to notice the fact that climate change is already creating apocalypses around the world for humans and other species: the floods and droughts and heatwaves of the present day don’t merit a mention, nor does the current suffering of many communities globally from problems related to climate change.
Perhaps Lizzie’s climate farsightedness, her ability to see the future but not the present, has to do with her unshakable instincts to protect and care for the people she loves. Unlike many characters in contemporary novels, whose conflict arises from their alienation, Lizzie is extremely tethered to her life in New York. “All these people. I have so many people, you wouldn’t believe it,” she says to a library crush who asks her why she cannot quit her current life and run away with him. Her husband and son count on her for love; her Midwestern mother counts on her for financial support; her recovering addict brother counts on her to help him stay sober and alive. Lizzie barely remembers to take care of herself — Ben has to force her to make doctor appointments for an aching knee and a suspicious mole. How could she be expected to protect all of humanity from climate crisis?
Maybe the survival instructions embedded in the text of the novel provide an answer. The internet forays into doomsday prepping seem like the product of Lizzie’s anxious mind, reproduced on the page to show readers how useless our individual efforts will be in the face of climate catastrophe. But the lessons could serve another purpose, too: Offill might hope that her readers will remember them when disaster strikes. The hacks she includes in Weather are easily searchable online; maybe the tuna lamp really would come in handy in the face of an extended power outage. If this is the case, then Offill the author is performing the same service for her readers that Lizzie the character is providing for her family: she is taking care of us. Her survival tips return the novel to its old-fashioned purpose to “instruct and delight”; she draws us in with beautiful language so that she might discreetly teach us important life lessons. She accomplishes this instruction in a radically new way, or one perhaps not used so directly since Defoe embedded survival instructions into Robinson Crusoe. Offill does not impose a set of morals on its readers; instead, she instructs by literally teaching us how to feed ourselves and keep ourselves warm when the infrastructure of modern civilization fails. By caring for others, Offill shows us how we might, in an ever-darkening world, create a little bit of light.