One of the attributes I always revere when reading novels is an author’s ability to create characters that demonstrate both the ideals and fears of an age and the dreams and realities of individuals. In Jenny Offill’s Weather, we meet Lizzie, a mother and wife who is balancing a multitude of personal issues that are exacerbated by the real and perceived ills of society. Among the personal demons she battles are her unrealized academic potential, her own critique of her abilities in motherhood and marriage, a recovering addict of a brother and allusions to her own substance dependence/abuse, and a general question how to be a good person. Offill weaves these with more communal issues, an intersection of emotional, environmental, and economic problems and, again, how to be a good person. Lizzie stars in her own show, providing light-hearted punchline after punchline to heavyweight topics that more accurately reflect how we think about these issues ourselves than we probably realize.
Lizzie is a college librarian who has just started assisting a former professor by handling questions users send to a podcast called Hell and High Water. She seems to have underachieved, although if it is by her own expectations or others is not always clear. We learn a lot about her through a play-by-play of her inner consciousness, one that alludes to a divorced mother, an addict brother, an unremarkable marriage, and the challenge of parenthood.
At the beginning of the book, we see things aren’t perfect, but they seem to be functioning. As the book develops, we realize the character holds things together with sleight-of-hand – whether it’s through substances (“One good thing about being addicted to sleeping pills,” Lizzie notes, “is that they don’t call it ‘addicted’; they call it ‘habituated’.”) or burying the turmoil that is evident in Offill’s short-yet-powerful paragraphs of emotion. Once, Lizzie remembers, her son Eli asks “Are you sure you’re my mother? Sometimes you don’t seem like good enough person.” Lizzie, highlighting those moments in our lives that just stick with us, remarks “He was just a kid, so I let it go. And now, years later, I probably only think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day.”
The switch from the perfunctory job of college librarian to the world of answering existential questions allows Offill to riff on things large and small without a hitch. At the college desk, Lizzie’s world reminds one of Seinfeld, a show about nothing, one in which the character is driven crazy by the minutiae of daily life and interactions with a cast of people. “Don’t use bacterial soap,” Catherine (Henry’s new beau) tells her,” because lalalalalalalala.” “Who cares!?!,” Lizzie is screaming – it is just another opinion on one topic in a sea of seven billion, and those opinions cover every possibility from one end of the spectrum to the other.
Environmentalists and doomsday preachers who write into the podcast clearly get in her head, adding another layer of mystique to an already cloudy worldview. As her fascination with the end of the world grows with her work on the podcast, her natural rhythms begin to falter. How is she supposed to prepare for the end of the world when her day-to-day life is so maddening? Everyone seems on the verge of breakdown, anger, or righteous rhetoric – how are we supposed to live? How are we supposed to die?
In Weather, Offills’s seemingly random outbursts of thoughts are actually carefully constructed arguments. They are engineered to seem meandering while remaining cognizant, each blurb its own story that contributes to a sum greater than its parts. On a personal level, one gets the sense that the current level of human interaction over-stimulates individuals to points of chaos. On a larger (and more disheartening) level, Offill seems to proffer that we should reset the bar of the American Dream. Lizzie (and us) may do better to stop hoping for good things to come and lower our expectations to a new standard: the hope that terrible things will not.