Following the breakout success of her second novel, 2014’s “The Department of Speculation,” Jenny Offill returns with “Weather,” an anxious work concerned with the “disaster imaginary” as seen manifested in many corners of American culture: “Doomsday Preppers,” Hollywood, a never-ending news cycle, climate change, extreme shoppers stocking up for The End, etc.
Presented as nearly uniform blocks of text, occasionally disjointed or clipped to a single sentence, “Weather” collages together not so much a world on fire, but an atmosphere of smoke. Something is in the air. Something menacing. Together we squint, trying to discern from the haze an encroaching threat, a beacon of light or any shape at all, really.
Initially, the attitude toward disaster is lighthearted, as when librarian Lizzie, the protagonist, observes from her desk the “doomed adjunct” who “has been working on his dissertation for eleven years” and heckles movies where “there is always some great disaster about to happen and only one unlikely person who can stop it.”
This begins to change, however, once Lizzie starts working for Sylvia, the host of a popular podcast, “Hell and High Water.” Lizzie is tasked with responding to listener mail and becomes inundated with survivalist anxieties and conspiracy theories. Everyone who writes is “either crazy or depressed.” Lizzie likes the crazies and, lately, the mail has been “skewing evangelical.” “I swear the hippie letters are a hundred times more boring than the end-timer ones.”
Being steeped in this kind of thinking rubs off:
“‘What’s new with you guys?’
‘Lizzie’s become a crazy doomer.’”
It’s funny because it’s so casual, but so too are the now-quotidian feelings of dread and anxiety. Ben, Lizzie’s husband, is a classicist who repeatedly contextualizes the political mayhem of today in historical precedent. Nevertheless, he too is on edge due to copious news consumption. “You should pace yourself,” Lizzie’s mother cautions him, “We’re only about twenty minutes into this.” This, presumably, meaning President Donald Trump’s election.
Written in the present tense, in short bursts, the text appears like chopped-up radio transmissions, dispatched from someone squirrelly wearing a tin hat and raised binoculars. Spliced in between these narrative-driven paragraphs are comic asides — actual jokes or listener questions, plus replies from Sylvia or Lizzie, or survivalist pop quizzes like “Name five edible plants in your region and their seasons of availability.”
In this manner, we hopscotch through Lizzie’s life in New York — between the campus library where she works, after-school pickup of her son, home with her husband and caring for her brother, who has a pill addiction.
This format inspires a paranoid style of thinking, as if the paragraphs were newspaper clippings pinned to a wall and the reader is stringing together uncanny connections.
“Someone left bags of candy in all the white people’s mailboxes,” Lizzie’s mother informs her over the phone. “The note attached said, ‘Are there troubles in your neighborhood?’” There are indeed troubles: climate change, xenophobia, American politics. “But,” Lizzie asks Sylvia, “hasn’t the world always been going to hell in a handbasket?” To which Sylvia replies, “Parts of the world, yes, but not the world entire.”
According to Lizzie, and scientific consensus, we are witness to planetary hospice. Our food, water and energy resources are increasingly at risk. What has become most precious, however, is time. “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days,” Lizzie confesses. But it’s less that time is accelerating and more that the window for meaningful action (to thwart climate change, to prepare for disaster, to love family and neighbors) is aggressively diminishing.
To counteract this all-consuming dread, Lizzie turns to yoga, meditation, Buddhism — facets of the mental-wellness industry — in an effort to root herself in the present. By averting her watchful gaze from the world-ending horizon and paying attention to the present moment, she might alleviate her anxiety. But Lizzie cannot take these practices seriously. “Mostly the people who take this meditation class just want to know if they should be vegetarians,” Lizzie wryly observes. Ultimately, she casts her lot with the “end-timers,” where she finds a mix of intrigue and competency more useful than controlled breathing.
“Milling” is the term disaster psychologists use to describe the “time period after every disaster in which most people wander around trying to figure out if it is truly a disaster.” The timeline of disaster is uncertain in “Weather.” Although Lizzie aches in anticipation of “the decisive moment,” climate change is well underway. By braiding apocalyptic thoughts with everyday life, Offill shows how susceptible — and adaptable — we are to fear.
The four horsemen, rather than charging over a hill, move in traffic with the rest of us as we inch toward that unknown bend in the horizon.
“Weather” by Jenny Offill, Knopf, 224 pp., $23.95
Author appearance: Offill will discuss “Weather” at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 24, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com