Lizzie Benson, the protagonist of Jenny Offill’s smart, provocative new novel, Weather, has a lot on her mind.
Lizzie has opted out of a Ph.D. program and is underemployed at a university library in Brooklyn. She is the major supporter of her younger brother, Henry, whose addictions were the primary reason Lizzie abandoned graduate school in the first place, and her husband is losing patience. She actively avoids a bigoted neighbor, is cowed by the officious crossing guard at her son’s elementary school and frets over the dwindling attendance at the workplace meditation class. Not to mention her bum knee. After the 2016 election, her pessimism increases.
Lizzie’s former thesis adviser, Sylvia, who is now the host of a popular “doom and gloom” environmental podcast called “Hell and High Water,” hires Lizzie to field her listeners’ questions. Lizzie finds herself spending hours in a highly polarized virtual world, addressing the concerns of survivalists, doomsday preppers, climate-change deniers and panicky environmentalists. She grows obsessed with the psychology behind disaster planning and survivalism, exacerbating the situation by web surfing and watching reality shows on extreme couponing and animism. But as worrying as these issues are, nothing quite compares to Lizzie’s enmeshed relationship with Henry, whose fragile hold on sobriety is tested by a wife and new baby.
Like Offill’s award-winning Department of Speculation, Weather is short, absorbing and disturbingly funny. Its structure—quotations, lists, jokes, articles and emails mixed with Lizzie’s trenchant observations—echoes our current fragmented world and ever-shortening attention spans. As the tensions between the doomsday predictions and everyday relationships fray and fester, Lizzie finds it more and more difficult to keep from tipping over into despair. She begins to look to her loving family for stability, even as she tests their patience.
The title itself connoting climate conditions and the human ability to withstand and survive change, Weather feels both immediate and intimate, as Lizzie’s concerns become eerily close to our own.