On Jenny Offill’s 2020 climate novel.
By Elizabeth Jackson
Introductory articles on the greatest problem of our age often begin by differentiating between climate and weather. The gist is that “climate” describes the long-term conditions, while the “weather” in a particular place varies over the short term. Climate is weather, averaged; weather is climate, made quotidian.
Jenny Offill’s Weather is, fittingly, a book about ordinary life, set against and suffused with the looming climate crisis. The book follows Lizzie, a New York librarian who gets a job answering emails (mostly questions) for her friend Sylvia, a professor who hosts a climate podcast, “Hell and High Water.” The rest of Lizzie’s time is occupied with her family—her husband Ben, young son Eli, and brother Harry, a recovering addict struggling to participate in his wife and daughter’s lives.
Weather is no conventional post-apocalyptic novel. There are no sweeping, barren landscapes or underground bunkers or pushing all of one’s belongings cross-country in a shopping cart. Not yet. In fact, Offill resists giving us a conclusive sense of when the book is set in time, though we know it takes place between now and 2047, when, Lizzie reports, New York will begin experiencing “dramatic, life-altering temperatures.” The main characters lead lives generally resembling those of many New Yorkers in 2021. One of the uncomfortable questions that readers must confront, amid the survivalist recommendations and alarming scientific reports dappling the narrative, is that the book may be set in the next year, or in five years, or even now.
One of the aspects of the novel that troubles me most is the absence of heroes. In a book set sometime within the next 26 years, we should see feverish attempts to achieve net-zero emissions, reports of global negotiations, open fields shining with solar panels. At the very least, we should see climate strikers in the streets. But Offill offers none of these optimistic signs. The closest we get is Sylvia, who travels around the country making speeches and providing information about the crisis—but even Sylvia eventually gives up, retreating from the city to live a life apart from activism. Offill writes a line that tightens my throat: “‘Of course, the world continues to end,’ Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden.’”
Offill uses juxtapositions like this—sweeping, startling statements about impending doom with descriptions of mundane life—to call out and make strange the human tendency to compartmentalize slow-onset crises as things that we can worry about later. When finals are over, when the kids get to school, when the credits have rolled. One of the most pernicious features of climate change is how gradual it is. The earth will not explode in a single moment, whereupon we realize that we should all be working collectively and constantly to fix it. For years, as the world burns or prepares to burn, many of us could (and probably will) carry on as if nothing, really, is changing—though we may, as Lizzie does, become increasingly aware of and worried about the possibilities of disastrous ecological change.
Making the climate crisis intimate requires us to grapple with human selfishness. Sometimes, Offill reveals this selfishness through the aspects of the climate crisis with which people are primarily concerned. At one of Sylvia’s presentations, a man reacts to information on melting glaciers by saying “‘Listen, I’ve heard all about that … but what’s going to happen to the American weather?’” It’s easy to dismiss this man, dropped briefly into the story, as a symbol of the American ignoramus. But let me just ask: Do you, reader of this essay, know that Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are currently struggling to stay above sea level? Have these places occupied your mind at all?
Sometimes, Offill portrays selfishness on a smaller scale. Lizzie, as anxious as she is and as much as she may vow to protect all sentient beings while alone in her roaring shower, is quite selfish. When her husband cautions her against using the air conditioning (“What if we overload the grid?”), Lizzie declares, “I am hot and overrule this.” Part of Weather’s brilliance lies in making readers confront the little choices we make that contradict our ideals, and in the fact that, through Lizzie, climate activists like myself find our anxieties echoed in beautiful and arresting prose. (“So much throwing away of paper that I’ve already undone all the good I’d done in the world until now.”)
When discussing both the climate crisis and the intimacies of the everyday, Weather is gorgeously executed. Offill delivers brilliant observations that sometimes seemed offhand, before I could fully absorb their impact. On the bus one day, Lizzie paints the setting simply and insightfully: “It’s raining. The bus is full. It’s reached that density where being seated feels like a form of guilt.” Just after admitting that when drunk, she’s wont to lapse into discussing the number of New Yorkers who live below sea level, Lizzie speaks of awakening on her birthday to waffles and to the fact that “Ben stayed up late sharpening pencils he found under the couch. He set aside the nicest ones for me.” From disaster, she pivots to remind us of the sweet rhythms of mundane married life. She also offers the occasional insightful pearl about the natural world. “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds,” an ecologist in the novel informs us. On one level, these details serve to make Weather’s fictional world appear more vivid. On another, they re-sensitize us to the human and nonhuman world around us. By reminding readers of the little poetries that exist on earth, Offill reminds us why we love our planet, and the many people on it—and why they’re worth protecting.
Offill also deftly illustrates how at risk we are of losing the daily, seasonal wonders of ordinary life that make it beautiful. After Lizzie discusses the idea that one isn’t supposed to remind a hospice patient of missing a “beach trip” or “apples in the fall,” Offill devastatingly interjects: “No more apples soon; apples need frost.” In laying the precariousness of our particular joys bare, she inspires a desperate desire to protect these aspects of life that we might take for granted.
Several friends recommended Weather to me, and one, with some uncertainty, referred to it as a “call to arms.” I find this classification very appropriate, but not because I feel inspired by Lizzie, or any of the other characters, for that matter. Rather, it’s the absence of action in Weather—the horror of looking at a world that appears very like our own, but without activists constantly countering apathy and fighting for our planet—that inspires me. No one in Weather is screaming, which makes me, the reader, feel like I must scream even louder to raise the alarm, so we don’t all become Lizzies: plodding along with a background resignation to the fact that the world is bleeding.
Our New York—the New York of 2021—arguably feels more hopeful and less ignorant than the metropolis portrayed in Weather. The Climate Clock still looms over Lincoln Center; fast-casual dining establishments boast nested stacks of compostable bowls. These efforts feel like (and to some extent are) victories. On a larger scale, the recent rise of an administration that has indicated its genuine intent to prioritize the climate, especially alongside the power shift from Congressional Republicans to Democrats, is cause for optimism. These positive changes, however, are not excuses for apathy. Given the government shift, and because of the complex, gradual nature of the crisis, it’s tempting, now, to resume our preoccupation with the odds and ends of everyday life, after four years of anxiety. It’s tempting to wait for others more informed or powerful to address the marathon problem of climate change. But now, when we have a government sympathetic to environmentalist views, is not the time to let our activist capacities become dormant. Remaining civically engaged and seizing the political moment to influence forthcoming environmental and infrastructure policy can help us to avoid the draining atmosphere of passivity and fear that pervades Weather.
Offill’s novel suggests that the path toward no return for the climate is not, at least in the short term, strewn with ashes and lined with flames. Rather, the path looks a lot like Lizzie’s New York City: millions of people at once anxious and disillusioned, buying prepper kits while pretending they have no choice but to watch the crisis unfold. “I have to go to work, says he, says me, says everybody,” Offill writes. Weather reminds us that what we have to do is act.