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Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’ Is Emotional, Planetary and Very Turbulent

Near the end of the novel, Lizzie reads about a group of cloistered monks who say, “We have died and we are in love with everything.” “Weather” understands that we can still be in love with what happens on a dying planet, and that life is always many things at once — full of love, full of despair, full of slobber frogs and melting glaciers and babies who won’t nap; that what happens on one scale doesn’t negate the others. But democratizing these scales can also become an alibi for complacency — for allowing us to shift back into the daily, the private, the emotional, as crutch or buffer. “Weather” suggests the comfort and peril of that retreat by narrating the life of a woman for whom retreat is becoming impossible. What happens when the horror of climate change gets lodged so deep under our skin we can’t escape it any longer? What happens when an author manages to translate this horror from an abstraction to a gripping tale of immediate particulars?

Walking away from her son’s elementary school one morning, Lizzie thinks: “The problem with Eli’s school is it’s not on a human scale.” The same could be said of writing about climate change: The subject isn’t on a human scale. Our minds can reckon with it, but how do we ask our child-size human hearts to hold it — to be productively overwhelmed by it? If I responded more strongly to “Dept. of Speculation” than to “Weather,” it might be a testament to the narrative dilemma the new novel is reckoning with: the scale of its ambition, despite its brevity, in its attempt to tell a story about climate change that carries the same visceral force as our private emotional dramas — that is, in fact, inseparable from them. It’s quite possible I’m just as much a solipsist as the “red-faced man” in the novel who listens to a lecture about melting glaciers and then asks, “But what’s going to happen to the American weather?”

Yet I think the intensity gap might also have to do with the way internal dangers allow for richer narrative tension than external ones: A marriage collapses from the inside, while the weather is external. It’s a deeper gut-punch when the call is coming from inside the house. The same is true for climate change. We’ve made the call. We are the threat. But the antagonism feels faceless and less psychologically complex than the domestic torment of intimate betrayal, and the vexed hope of rebuilding.

Offill’s whittled narrative bursts are apt vessels for the daily experience of scale-shifting they document — the vertigo of moving between the claustrophobia of domestic discontent and the impossibly vast horizon of global catastrophe. This fragmented form is weirdly well-suited to both melodrama and plotlessness: In “Dept. of Speculation,” it allowed Offill to narrate marital infidelity, which can easily verge into soap opera, with an oblique, devastating grace — its searing shards summoning the sensation of holding a hot saucepan for just a moment, before it burns the skin off your fingers. Offill’s agent once described that book as an X-ray rather than a novel, but in “Weather” we have something like an inverted X-ray: a narrative that illuminates not the obvious bones of the story but its unexpected details; not the bold lines of your femurs but the detritus in your pockets — the crumpled receipts, the pacifier dropped on the sidewalk, the key whose lock you can’t remember. These bits and bobs highlight “the feeling of daily life,” but their mundane silhouettes are backlit by something more like a nuclear explosion.

In both novels, Offill’s fragmentary structure evokes an unbearable emotional intensity: something at the core of the story that cannot be narrated directly, by straight chronology, because to do so would be like looking at the sun. In “Dept. of Speculation,” that white-hot core was the heartbreak of domestic collapse. In “Weather,” the collapse exists on a scale at once broader and more abstract: the end of the world itself. The thing that cannot be stared at directly is not the sun, but our own doomed planet.

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