How can we care about it all? And where to begin to describe what ‘all’ might encompass? The pandemic? Democracy in crisis? Climate change?
The sensible answer might be that we can’t.
Jenny Offill’s Weather forces us to ask this very question: how can we possibly care about all of this? It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a novel about existential despair and dread. But it’s a despair that’s never maudlin but wry, with a nihilistic humour that’s balanced with tender observations of the mundane joys of everyday life that persist through the hardest and strangest of times.
There is a scene in Fleabag in which Phoebe Waller Bridge tells the Hot Priest (capitals the internet’s) that she wants somebody to tell her what to wear in the morning, what to eat, what to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what bands to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. She wants someone to tell her what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.
In Weather, this somebody might be Lizzie. Lizzie spends her days categorising information and offering it to others, as a librarian. She found herself in the position without any formal training. Lizzie might be, then, in the position we are all in as we attempt to organise our lives and their multitudes, all while feeling uniquely unqualified to do so.
Lizzie takes on a second role of guidance, answering listeners’ mail for the podcast hosted by her former academic mentor. Her mentor is not only an ostensible source of guidance for Lizzie, but for the hundreds of her distressed listeners. They write in, asking her to answer some of the biggest questions of their lives for them. It’s something of a Sleepless in Seattle for the end of the world. But even the expert has outsourced the answers.
These letters ask questions on various topics, some ask “Do angels need sleep?” and some almost unbearably serious, asking “What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?”. But within them lies is the fundamental question: what should I do?
This question is arguably behind all works of fiction. But Offill’s laying it out for us on almost every page makes clear the difficulty of beginning to answer that question in our times.
This is a novel which could easily slip into a shopping list of what ills us. It’s true that there are few problems, personal and political, which Offill does not touch upon. But this might be to be expected from a fictional reflection of the times our leaders tell us everyday are unprecedented.
As Sana Goyal points out in her review of the book in Wasafiri, Offill’s choppy narrative lends itself well to a sense of barely concealed panic and underlying dread.
This choppy narrative interweaves the letters from panicked and worried listeners with snippets from Lizzie’s own trying personal life. Lizzie’s brother is a recovering addict whose newborn baby thrusts him into a level of responsibility he feels incapable of, her mother is an emotionally draining Evangelical and the intriguing stranger she first encounters on a subway leads her to entertain the idea of jeopardising her comfortable marriage.
This blend of strangers’ worries and Lizzie’s internal strife is a clever portrayal of the balance between caring about a frightening world and caring about ourselves that we might all be trying to strike.
And while it’s true that while this changeable and unpredictable weather, both literally and politically will come to us at different points and affect us all to varying degrees, we will all feel it. It’s in this sense that Offill’s final line resonates so deeply: “The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.”
Perhaps this delusion is of the positions we are in, and where those lie relative to others. As Lizzie is drawn ever further into the claustrophobic spiral of her family and their myriad of problems, the reader and Lizzie herself questions the extent to which she is them and to which she is a distinct individual.
As we all feel the weather changing at a terrifying pace around us, perhaps the real delusion is thinking that any of us is in a unique position, separate from our families and from fellow citizens and immune from influence or responsibility.
It has been said that if anything positive comes from this strange time, perhaps it will be that we will all realise how connected to one another we truly are. That we might now be more prepared to modify our future behaviour in order to protect our families, our communities, the world, not only from dangerous viruses but from climate change and from harmful ideologies.
In Lizzie’s caring for her family through addiction, religious fundamentalism and troubling political times, Offill offers us a glimpse of the reality of this kind of behaviour, of care, might look like. Lizzie is far from infallible. When she scolds her son over something minor, he retaliates by telling her that she does not seem like a good enough person to be his mother.
But she is a character committed to guiding herself and her family through the storm as best she can. And what more can a person, or a novel, do?
Claire Thomson works in communications for an arts funding body. She is studying an MA in Art History part-time and lives in Edinburgh. Her fiction has previously appeared in Dear Damsels.