Author(s): Jenny Offill
From the author of Dept. of Speculation, a dazzling and deadpan new novel about hope and despair, fear and comfort as it plays out in these times of environmental and political turbulence.
'What are you afraid of, he asks me and the answer of course is dentistry, humiliation, scarcity, then he says what are your most useful skills? People think I'm funny'
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practise her other calling: as an unofficial shrink.
For years, she has supported her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. Sylvia has become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As she dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you've seen the flames beyond its walls.
When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to acknowledge the limits of what she can do. But if she can't save others, then what, or who, might save her? And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in--funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.
Climate is only experienced as weather. Climate becomes comprehensible only when experiences of weather are arrayed over time. To read a novel — especially one written in the present tense as is Jenny Offill’s new novel — is to experience moments of ‘weather’, each moment the expression of, or contributing to, the ‘climate’ of the book. Weather is written as a series of brief paragraphs or observations — moments — that read as waspish autofiction, very funny but borne by an underlying anxiety that particularises itself in the narrator’s life but is indicative of wider — ‘climactic’ — ills (climate change, far right extremism, the struggle for meaning and fulfilment against the last throes of capitalism and the obligations and limitations of your personal circumstances, &c). Lizzie’s life is a seemingly endless round of underachievement and misdirection. She failed to complete her degree; she ends up working in an academic library and answering e-mails for her former supervisor; her husband is also not doing what he would like to be doing but working in IT; she cares for and worries about, and worries about caring for, her son and her dog; her relationship with her ex-addict brother has all the signs of co-dependency; she can’t help viewing the daily circumstances of her life with a scorn that is at once protective and reflexive. The narrative arc of her life is shaped by a downward pull (which, after all, is what makes an arc of anything that has propulsion or is caught up in some sort of propulsion not its own). Her yoga teacher says to her, “You seem to identify down, not up. Why do you think that is?” Her life is moving through the years, but she is finding it increasingly hard to feel connected with what is supposed to be important to her: her husband and child, her hopes and intentions (whatever they were). “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing, supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.” Her prioritising — or induction — of her brother’s neediness, and her existential fecklessness and feelings of entrapment in her circumstances (“I hate everyone, I said. Mildly, I’ll argue, but not mildly enough apparently.”) leads to her husband and son going on holiday without her, and Lizzie flirts with the idea of being the object of the attention of a man she meets first on a bus. Chronic inertia and congenital underachievement are virtues as much as they are weaknesses, though, and, when Lizzie’s husband returns, the novel ends on a quietly cosy note that is somehow radical in its affirmation of small moments of hopeful weather in a climate definitely changing for the worse.
Shortlisted for The Women's Prize for Fiction 2020