If you are not already experiencing "climate dread," the feeling that you're living in a slow-mo ecological apocalypse that you're powerless to stop, then Jenny Offill's latest novel, Weather, will fill you to the brim with it.
Granted, your capacity to care about "climate dread" may be reduced if you're currently suffering from rent-hike dread, hospital-bill dread, getting-shot-by-the-cops dread, and inability-to- retire dread, and that diminished capacity may prevent you from diving into Offill's sustained meditation on the subject. However, if you are a little curious about it, her black humor and occasionally deep insights will keep your eyeballs glued to the page in search of a cure.
Weather has much in common with Offill's last book, Dept. of Speculation. Both enjoyed lots of pre-publication love on social media from the New York publishing industry's tastemakers. Both present a domestic fiction using literary collage, a technique popularized most recently by nonfiction writers/poets such as Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine. And both are overhyped but still very much worth a read.
In Weather, Offill places the reader in the mind of Lizzie, a librarian in the big city with a supportive partner and a "gifted and talented" kid in school. In short, diaristic, pithy but breezy paragraphs, we learn that Lizzie spends a lot of time caring for her brother as he struggles with addiction, worrying about her child's future on a doomed planet, and reflecting on the pleasures and temptations of married life. When she takes a side gig answering e-mails for her former writing teacher's doomsday podcast, her focus on climate dread and prepping for the end-times begins to consume her, and the narrative gains steam.
Fans of NYC dinner-party zingers and stumbled-upon profundities will appreciate Offill's contributions to the field. Some of the funnier moments in the book come at the expense of wide-eyed businessmen whose devotion to technology allows them to escape the cold reality of a warming planet. "These people long for immortality but can't wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee," Lizzie's mentor quips at one point. The more profound moments arrive in Lizzie's fervent search for new perspectives to combat her growing dread, though these new perspectives aren't always comforting:
"Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?
Old person worry: What if everything I do does?"
Though some of Offill's jokes and profundities can feel a bit pat, the overall structure of the book is greater than the sum of its parts, offering readers the pleasure of looking back through a diary and realizing that all our apparently disparate anxieties may fall under the umbrella of the larger one: fear of extinction.
Weather suggests that climate dread is its own crisis, a collective psychological block preventing us from taking the action necessary to stave off ecological collapse or, at the very least, to manage it more effectively.
Though fiction can allow us to diagnose this problem in all its messy human nuance, Offill knows it can never give us the cure. To that end, she concludes her story with an obligatory note of hope that lies outside the book itself, literally a website URL: www.obligatorynoteofhope.com. The site appears to be a place where climate-dreaders, or people who caught the disease from the book, can connect and take collective action to dig each other out of the doldrums.