by Jenny Offill
Allen & Unwin
Published March, 2020
In those disaster movies, the hero always says, ‘Trust me,’ and the one who is about to die says, ‘Do I have a choice?’Jenny Offill, Weather
The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
What if we went for a walk, if we walked out into the streets?
It’s barely possible.Weather
Lizzie Benson is paid to answer questions. Once, she was a postgraduate research student, before giving this up in favour of ‘squandering my promise’. Now she is entrusted with letters asking: What is the best way to prepare my children for the coming chaos? What is the philosophy of late capitalism? How can I tell if those around me would become good Germans? Do angels need sleep? (‘It is unlikely, though we cannot be completely sure.’)
People write after listening to Hell and High Water, a podcast about climate change made by Benson’s former academic supervisor, Sylvia, who has segued from academia to celebrity. Lizzie works at the seams of the unknowable, crafting answers to questions cast into uncertainty.
Her brief replies form a consolatio. In 45 BCE philosopher and lawyer Marcus Tullio Cicero wrote his philosophical work Consolatio after the death of his daughter Tullia. Cicero’s work on loss was lost. Only fragments remain. Surviving commentary suggests Cicero’s work was a correspondence, perhaps between arguing parts of the writer himself as he mourned. In the fifteenth century, a grave was discovered and identified as Tullia’s. Beside the body, a lamp had been burning for fifteen hundred years. Consolation debated, lost, fragmented and faked. Loss, a lamplight’s unblinking eye.
Consolation itself flickers, sometimes fragmentary and fleeting, sometimes steady and sustaining. Lizzie’s replies stage an internal debate and an ongoing discussion with Sylvia: ‘Hasn’t the world always been going to hell in a handbasket?’
This is America, during and after a presidential election. As the votes are counted, Lizzie’s husband Ben takes to making small wooden things: ‘One to organize our utensils, one to keep the trash can from wobbling.’ There, he is able to say. I fixed it. He also says: ‘The path is getting… narrower.’ Lizzie asks: ‘But could it still…?’ They stay up and watch until the end, because Ben feels ‘It’s not impossible.’
Hope and despair bicker. Advice sprouts everywhere, ‘some grand, some practical’. This goes alongside the ‘milling’ disaster psychologists describe, when, after a disaster, people wander around ‘trying to figure out if it is truly a disaster’. Insomnia, especially when it stems from parental worry, is ‘a badge of honour. Proof that you are paying attention’. The only people sure of anything blast belligerent certainty.
Questions accumulate. Lizzie makes a list: People Also Ask. The practical and philosophical vie for attention:
What will disappear from stores first?
What is surveillance capitalism?
How can we save the bees?
In Offill’s fiction, uncertainty prevails. Weather opens with a typically mysterious anecdote:
In the morning, the one who is most enlightened comes in. There are stages and she is in the second to last, she thinks. This stage can be described only by a Japanese word. ‘Bucket of black paint,’ it means.
Questions zig-zag through Offill’s novels from the luminous to the dark, drawing into question the form of the novel. Her work has been described as autofiction, as Rachel Cusk’s and Karl Ove Knausgård’s has. Cusk’s and Knausgård’s works are built around some version of the first-person: a stencil, in Cusk’s case, and an inextinguishable and apparently-confessional voice, in Knausgård’s. Cusk’s work empties the space of the first-person to see what might remain and what its outline might host; Knausgård’s fills it to overflowing, ejecting any sense of other. Despite these contrasting modes, Cusk’s and Knausgård’s work shares expansiveness: painstakingly-evoked moments, detailed monologues, the novelistic equivalent of the cinematic long take. Offill’s work is increasingly contractive.
Grace, the narrator of Offill’s first novel, Last Things (1999), remembers a childhood babysitter, Edgar, who ‘only answered questions that interested him’. Mostly, instead of responding, he turns away to read books such as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Which is better? ‘Nothingness.’ Grace’s father has disappeared. Where did he go, she asks her mother, an ornithologist. ‘I think he became a cryptozoologist.’
She begins a lecture: ‘Imagine, if you will, a world without birds.’ Cryptozoologists find hidden animals. Where is the human animal among all this? Grace traces her losses and catalogues clues, pivoting between hope and despair. When she declares herself ‘sick of the stupid universe’ her mother responds: ‘The universe is sick of you too.’ The novel lays out its narrative in boxy vignettes. It begins with an epigraph, André Breton’s exhortation to: ‘Put your trust in the inexhaustible character of the murmur.’ The murmur of grace and the question of trust accent the novel’s jittery pulse.
Dept. of Speculation (2014) whittles these boxes into rectangular containers for anecdotes, observations and, as many critics have noted, small pieces reminiscent of the Buddhist kōan. Used as part of a meditation practice, the kōan’s fragment is designed to propel the mind beyond the conceptual. Imagined as nonsensical or unanswerable riddles, they are more purposeful than these stereotypes suggest.
Compared with the shape of Last Things’ relatively conventional chapters and syntactical scaffolding, this novel’s pieces are smaller, while the uncertainty that fills them swells. They have sharp, laughing edges:
A Lebanese proverb: The bedbug has a hundred children and thinks them too few.
The subject is often marriage and motherhood, occasioned by the languishing writing career of a mother who hasn’t published a novel for fifteen years (the same gap between Offill’s first two novels, and one observable in the lives of many writing mothers). She is referred to as ‘the wife’. Many of the pieces tucked snug into these boxes are about tender moments observing a child:
Later, when it’s time to go to bed, she puts both legs in one side of her footy pyjamas and slyly waits for us to notice.
Sometimes, on the subway platform I still sway, imagining her in my arms.
The subject of marriage is more splintery. It begins with reciprocity and harmony, and with speaking together as one, the first person gloriously pluralised:
You called me, I called you. Come over, come over, we said.
But later, division smoulders within this multiplication:
At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.
And beneath it all is the question of women’s lives, and how art and love might coexist. One option: to become an art monster, liberated from the distractions of domesticity:
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
And the idea of abandoning this idea:
Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits.
Love brings about this abandonment, thinks the wife. A French doctor, Hippolyte Baraduc, who aims to photograph the soul leaving the body, and the emotions, finds love to be ‘an indistinct blur’. The novel tests the hypothesis that a woman might exchange singular ambition and art for the fleeting multiplication of an indistinct blur.
Communication crumples. As the narrator interviews herself about these questions of desire and intimacy, she feels shut out. The part of the self that may have some answers about generosity and joy is joyless and churlish:
What do you want?
I don’t know.
What do you want?
I don’t know.
What seems to be the problem?
Leave me alone.
In Weather, love is still central, still see-sawing.
Love is either too familiar or not familiar enough. ‘Funny’, thinks Lizzie:
how when you’re married all you want is to be anonymous to each other again, but when you’re anonymous all you want is to be married and reading together in bed.
There’s Ben, Lizzie’s husband, then there’s Will, with whom Lizzie embarks on a cautious flirtation: ‘like a wartime romance. Minus the war. Minus the sex.’
A fling would be a simple thing. ‘All I would have to do is take my clothes off with a stranger who has no particular interest in my long-term well-being or mental stability. How hard is that? I could do that. It would be fun.’ The best kind of stranger for this wild and liberating occasion would be perfect if he:
got all my jokes, and liked how I never nagged and how I never asked if I looked fat, and would agree to make me go to the dentist and doctor even though I don’t ever want to (because of death, death, the terrible death), and would be okay with my indifferent housekeeping and my seventies-style bush, and would be okay with us having to take care of my brother financially and emotionally for the rest of his life.
In this case, ‘I’d be totally into it.’
This sidelong paean to intimacy murmurs through the novel. Lizzie thinks of Queen Victoria’s note that ‘My dearest Albert put on my stockings for me. I went and saw him shave, a great delight…’. Ben fixes the drain and folds the washing and helps take care of Lizzie’s brother Henry as he is pulled between addiction, anxiety, and rash and tender hopefulness.
Will is a journalist who strides around war-zones with the air of a spy. He’s adventurous, and has a side-line in taking kids out for wilderness trips (but flinches when Lizzie strays off the pavement onto the grass). His response to her question about whether he’s ever had therapy is to wave his hand and say ‘Nothing happened to me’. Despite this curious (and maybe spurious) imperviousness, Lizzie is drawn to him, with his wilderness tips and catalogue of survival skills: ‘Sometimes your heart runs away with someone and all it takes is a bandanna on a stick.’
Weather is about hope, especially the hope of repair. Lizzie works at a help desk in a university library. She ‘always had an obsession with lost books, all the ones half written or recovered in pieces’, like Cicero’s shattered self-consolation. Library staff are given a catalogue of problem patrons, and tips for dealing with them. Malodorous, Humming, Laughing, Defacing, Laundering, Combative, Chattering, Lonely. Coughing.
In this novel, the whittled pieces of Offill’s fiction are small drawers in a cabinet of curiosities. Sometimes, she hones them further and their lines almost break under the weight of their freight. Yet when the line breaks, there is the possibility of poetry.
William Carlos Williams had a half-dream about form and freedom. He wrote to poet and literary critic Kenneth Burke: ‘I woke in the night with a half-sentence on my metaphorical lips: “the limitations of form”. It seemed to mean something of importance.’ Kazim Ali, in ‘On the Line’, the opening piece in A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, writes: ‘The line itself, ornate and gorgeous, creates a texture defined by the space between one line and the next.’
As Offill’s lines thin and come close to breaking, the idea of some metaphysical line humanity treads sharpens. When Lizzie asks Will about whether this feels to him more like a country at war or peace, he replies that it feels ‘the way it does just before it starts… while everybody’s convincing themselves it’s going to be okay, it’s there in the air somehow.’
The novel haunts crossing spaces, the liminal zones of libraries’ public privacies (laundering, humming, existential despair), hallways and elevators. And many of us are reading Weather in locked-down homes without much sense of what might happen next. Kazim Ali continues, writing about the magic of the poetic line: ‘Something exists in the here and now with no dependence on before or after.’ This is the space Offill observes, collecting shards and slivers of questioning.
In The Red and the Black Stendhal described the novel as ‘a mirror carried along a high road’. Remembering this, Michael Ondaatje’s characters in The English Patient – who meet as much through the pages of the books they’ve read as in the temporary post-war hospital that collects their breakage – talk about the novel as ‘a mirror walking down a road’.
Weather is the walking mirror that has tripped. A reader might step over its beautiful splinters, only to find a fine piece working its way deeper into the skin, or popping out, later. Auden wrote of Yeats: ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry’. Weather might carry a hope that its splinters hurt readers into some kind of action. But it’s also the novel where Lizzie meets a drug dealer’s eyes in the lift, and their eyes say: How about this motherfucking darkness?
Characters live in ‘a state of twilight knowing’ – a line from Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial – Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering – a place between denial and knowledge. Henry is consumed with anxiety, imagining his newborn baby ‘burned, smothered, strangled, flayed’. There are those who are prepping for the end days, and those in denial. Some clutch at one thing or another, like the ‘doomed adjunct’ who shuffles into the library, working away as an underpaid casual academic, hopeful that he is ‘minor but instrumental’, selling his plasma to make ends meet.
Lizzie is a magnet, attracting the metallic fragments of others’ stories. Ben comments that if she were a real shrink, they’d be rich. Flinty and sparkling observations fly around. What to say to depressives? What not to say may be simpler: have you tried chamomile tea? How might Lizzie prepare her young son for the apocalypse? ‘It would be good if he had some skills… and, of course, no children.’
It is a truth universally acknowledged that more people read novels than poetry, or that novels are easier companions than poems. Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennet stands at the beginning of the novel and is some kind of forebear to Offill’s Lizzie, with her reflections on love and independence, in a world innocent of the machinery that has escalated its destruction. ‘What think you of books?’ asks Mr (Fitzwilliam) Darcy, winningly. Yet like Offill’s Lizzie, Austen’s isn’t sure this is a good line to pursue – the flirting, the romance, any kind of certainty: ‘I feel we will be all at sea in our varying opinion of books, Mr Darcy.’ Lizzie Benson stands among the novel’s smithereens. As Offill writes the novel of end-times, she is also writing the end of the novel. And yet, this sharp gem suggests that there may be something beyond the novel.
Weather is terrifying, even as it opens into poetry, consolation flickering. It interleaves fractured images of what remains beautiful with a catalogue of the inconsolate: the doomed precariat, the end-timers, those who vote for their own destruction, wandering the fenced-in playground and the quiet corners of the library.
On Tuesdays, Lizzie attends a meditation class, held in the library basement. Margot, a ‘shrink. Also a Buddhist’ has a voice like a sharp stick. She raps out truths like: ‘suffering = pain + resistance’. But she also says: ‘It is important to remember that emotional pain comes in waves. Remind yourself that there will be a pause between the waves.’ She tells her students that Tibetan Buddists reframe the word ‘suffering’: ‘Instead of saying that life is intolerable, they might say that life is tolerable. As in just barely.’ When Henry tells her his pain is unbearable, she corrects him: ‘It’s barely bearable.’
Offill’s quick-quipping, barely hopeful, almost-broken novel observes consolation trashed and fragmented, but still, somehow, emitting its light, still murmuring responses to unanswerable questions, even as its lines can barely bear this weight. When Lizzie takes her son, Eli, for a walk, the buildings look ‘whitewashed in light’. The air is sweet. ‘Diminishing radiance,’ she thinks, ‘but still some, I’d say.’