In these uncertain times, reading something light with an edge of humor is a good idea. Weather by Jenny Offill isn’t necessarily a funny book, but its author is very clever and her protagonist, Lizzie Benson, is a complicated mess, which can be amusing when it’s not crazy-making. The book is also interspersed throughout with many amusing and corny jokes.
A woman walks into a dentist’s office. The dentist asks her why she’s there. She says she thinks she’s a moth. The doctor says, “You don’t need a dentist, you need a psychiatrist.” She says, “I have a psychiatrist.” The doctor asks her again why she’s there. She says, “Your light was on.”
Lizzie lives with her husband, Ben, and their son, Eli, in a small apartment in an unnamed New York City borough. One neighbor is a drug dealer, and another, Mrs. Krovinski, rants about most everything. Even though she can’t afford it, Lizzie often hires a car service, where she is most likely the only customer in the age of rideshare competitors; she wants owner Jimmy to survive.
Neither Lizzie nor Ben is working in the field in which they studied. Ben is a PhD classicist who makes educational video games. Lizzie left her graduate work to care for her brother, Henry, an addict. She also answers email for her former mentor Sylvia’s (who “used to check in on me sometimes to see if I was still squandering my promise”) doomsday blog, Hell and High Water. Eli attends first grade, is a truly delightful little boy, and Lizzie is a fun, responsive, and critically aware and present parent. No issues in the parenting department.
Primarily Lizzie works as a university librarian where she is unqualified and fills the voids of her work days by being the on-site amateur therapist. Her husband quips that it’s too bad she isn’t a qualified therapist because they could use the money. Lizzie also attends meditation classes with friend, Margot, although mostly “the people who take this meditation class just want to know if they should be vegetarians or, if they already are, how to convert others."
This is Jenny Offill’s third book. Her previous, Dept. of Speculation, was written in 2014, and is another slim novel about love, marriage, motherhood, and the character, Wife’s, mediations and insights of her “self” in each of these roles. The title comes from the uncertainty around her and her husband, Husband, as they live and grow together. Nothing is ordinary; most of domestic life is guess work with a string of petty and not-so-petty annoyances, like infidelity, along the way.
In Weather, Offill again looks at relationships in marriage and parenting, only this time it is after the 2016 presidential election, and the atmosphere everywhere in the US, especially in New York City, is ominous. There is a big, black cloud hovering over Lizzie, and its name is Climate Change: “According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures by 2047.”
She feels that the disquieting "hum in the air" is akin to the one that followed 9/11. In the words of Prof. Marvel (Wizard of Oz), “There's a storm blowin' up - a whopper, to speak in the vernacular of the peasantry.” The Bensons live a small life under a big cyclone of fear. After the election, Ben tells Lizzie to tend to her teeth and knees before she loses her insurance.
For Lizzie, the presidential election is a personal disaster. She fixates alternately on it, and on climate change. She becomes an online collector of survival techniques, a so-called Prepper. She learns how to start a fire from gum foil and a battery, and fashion a candle from a tuna can filled with oil (and eat the tuna after the candle has burned out). Lizzie contains most of her paranoia out of Eli’s earshot (she and Ben talk seriously about moving to Canada and building a Doomstead with a nice view and running water nearby) and with objective humor. “My book-ordering history is definitely going to get me flagged by some evil government algorithm,” she observes.
When Ben and Eli take a summer cross-country trip to California, Lizzie stays home to tend to her brother, who after a series of blunders, is close to falling off the sobriety wagon. He cheated on his wife after she delivered their baby girl, and she threw him out. When Lizzie thinks about self-medicating to sleep or otherwise quell her mounting uncertainties, "I remind myself (as I often do) never to become so addicted to drugs or alcohol that I'm not allowed to use them”.
During this time, Lizzie dabbles in a somewhat illicit affair, minus the guilt and intimacy, with Will, a wartime journalist. She asks him if the US feels like a country at war. “He says it feels the way it does just before it starts. It’s a weird thing, but you learn to pick up on it. Even while everybody’s convincing themselves that it’s going to be okay, it’s there in the air somehow. The whole thing is more physical than mental, he tells me.”
In both Dept. of Speculation and Weather, Offill, a practicing Buddhist, designs each paragraph as a koan—a paradoxical anecdote or question used in Zen Buddhism to provoke critical thinking and test logic. Some short, some long, each of Offill’s meticulously crafted paragraphs contains an essential piece of wisdom. These paragraphs are graphically surrounded by white space, almost like a collection of lithographs framed within a book. It’s an unusual writing and editing style and unique to Offill.
Weather has a haunting similarity to our current America, and how we weather our pending sense of doom by being prepared, keeping our wits, and our senses of humor.
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