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How to Write Fiction When the Planet Is Falling Apart

Later that month, Offill and I did a bit of moon­gazing, at the Met Breuer museum. We stood together in a room full of drawings of the night sky, part of an exhibition of the work of the Latvian painter Vija Celmins, known for her graphite-and-charcoal photorealist portraits of stones, sand and outer space. The moon hanging before us was depicted in such close detail — the nubby, scored surface, the creamy rise of the ridges — it actually felt handled, as if the artist had reached out, palmed it like an apple, felt her fingers into its crags. I said something to this effect, or perhaps something even more maudlin — why does the moon always seem to meet our gaze? Offill nodded, gathering my dropped threads, as she does, weaving it into a conversation. It was, I realized, how I would remember her — slouched in that puffy coat she wore all winter, shoes wet with slush, listening as avidly as she spoke.

Celmins is an artist Offill has admired since she was in college. Now in her 80s, Celmins began her career painting disasters: forest fires and plane crashes. In 1968, she began to take photographs of the Pacific Ocean, near her home in Venice, Calif., making minutely detailed drawings of waves in different weather, each taking months to produce. “There’s one big one. But mostly” — Offill indicated the smaller works. “It’s not her choice of how to address the infinite.”

Up close, the drawings of the waves could be anything — striated skin, the whorls of a shell. “That undeniable technical skill,” she marveled. “You can’t look at that and be like, ‘She can’t draw.’ It makes me think of the big span of books some women — like a Rachel Kushner — write. They’ll never be mistaken for writing a little book.” She laughed. She was referring to Kushner’s 2013 novel, “The Flamethrowers,” a gritty, ambitious book about motorcycle racing and the rise of Italy’s radical left in the 1970s. “It’s probably a really smart move. And then there are all these women who write — Aimee Bender, Kelly Link — who use another genre as a way in. They are writing absolutely about domestic life at times. But then there’s a layer of the surreal or something, so again it’s not like you’re too head-on with it.”

It was not defensiveness I detected, not superiority, but a kind of rueful, collegial recognition of the strategies of the female writer — and quiet pride. It was Jane Austen writing to her nephew, an aspiring writer: “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” Offill has made no concessions, no feints to be taken seriously on anyone’s terms but her own. She has taken up a disparaged form, the “domestic novel,” stuffed it with ideas, histories of geology and the cosmos, while somehow stripping it down to its most austere, efficient form. With it, she pursues those very subjects — motherhood and the climate emergency — that can seem too large, too sentimentalized, too guilt-inducing to be subjects of successful, let alone serious, realist fiction.

I continued to admire the moon. Offill wandered off and returned. “That’s the part of my personality that I don’t understand exactly where it comes from.”

“Your ambition?” I asked.

She nodded. We were moving on to the next room when she added: “I don’t think you’d stay at something for 15 years when no one’s interested unless you have something — like, ‘I’ll show them.’ Something is there.”

In the late 1970s, Celmins began a five-year project creating identical duplicate sculptures of 11 stones, down to every nick and shadow. The work — “To Fix the Image in Memory” — is presented in a glass case; the game is to figure out which stone is real. As we looked at them together, I realized Celmins captures what Offill has called “last things”: “My mother said that stones were last things and would be around long after people were gone,” the narrator in her first novel recalls. “Other last things were oceans, metal and crows.”

Ambition is a paltry word for such work; ambition alone cannot explain the kind of attention required to stare at 11 stones for five years, to sketch water for more than a decade. Ambition alone cannot explain Offill’s patient rescue of facts and fragments from old books, a forgotten town meeting, annals of lonely polar explorers; her pressing them onto the poster boards, moving them around, waiting for them to ripen. Ambition has nothing to do with the desire to tuck into a novel a survival guide for a beloved child. It is not ambition, I was moved to tell her, it is devotion, but she had walked on. “Oh, I love you, I love you,” she was saying, standing in front of a drawing. “That’s Mars. Supposedly, we’re all going to live there one day.”

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