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Weather: Profound, hilarious yarn leaves you wanting more

Jenny Offill’s latest novel of ideas draws deeply on conversations, media and emails

Author: Jenny Offill
ISBN-13: 978-1783784769
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £12.99

Jenny Offill’s skill as a novelist is to educate and entertain all in the one book. It’s there in her debut novel, Last Things, as her young female protagonist questions the world around her through science while more impenetrable mysteries play out in her family. Her critically acclaimed bestseller, Dept of Speculation, which seemed to be on everyone’s must-read list in 2014, was at once a portrait of a marriage break-up, a visceral dissection of motherhood and a lament for the lost “art monster” that goes untended in the face of domestic demands. It was shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award and has since been optioned for a feature by Animal Kingdom.

To say that Offill’s books are novels of ideas is like saying that the sea is wet. The ideas that resonate on every page are an intrinsic part of her fiction, the fuel for story and character. Her third novel, Weather, continues in this vein. The narrator Lizzie Benson is a librarian whose capacity for interesting facts about the world (and particularly its ending) is matched only by her curiosity in people.

As such, the library seems like the perfect job for Lizzie. From the blonde girl who stops by to steal toilet paper, to the man who doesn’t want his fines lowered, Offill introduces the world with ease. Her style seems effortless. She is a wizard at letting the story tell itself and knows exactly how much detail to give the reader. If there was a motto for her writing it might be: never confusing, never dull.

‘Squandering my promise’

A new part-time job, as an assistant answering emails, is offered to Lizzie by her old grad school teacher Sylvia who “used to check in on me sometimes to see if I was still squandering my promise”. Sylvia, an academic with a huge podcast following, elicits questions on everything from global warming, to late-stage capitalism, to how to survive the apocalypse.

The emails are a microcosm of our age of anxiety and Lizzie’s sharp responses are insightful and funny. On social media: “I explain that I don’t use any of them because they make me feel too squirrelly. Or not exactly squirrelly, more like a rat who can’t stop pushing a lever.” On traditional media: “But it’s America. You don’t even get on the news if you shoot less than three people.” On anxiety: “Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do does?”

As fans of Dept of Speculation will expect, Lizzie’s home life makes for equally thought-provoking content. Married to computer designer Ben, and mother to a young son Eli, Lizzie also takes responsibility for her recovering drug addict brother Henry and their benevolent, broke mother. The sections on marriage and motherhood are full of unsentimental, astute observations: “My main bad decision is spending too much time travelling or being a fake shrink while ignoring the people I live with.”

Spousal neglect

Ordinary, everyday spousal neglect threatens to turn murkier as Lizzie contemplates an affair with a war photographer she meets in a bar. But this is not a woman who acts on impulse. She considers infidelity in the same logical way she thinks about the wider universe, breaking things down, anticipating future consequences: “Ben is used to my all talk, no action ways, but it took a long time to bank all that goodwill. The thought of having to be with someone else long enough to deserve it again. That’s what feels impossible.”

There is perhaps a slightness to this storyline that was not apparent in Dept of Speculation. Both novels are slender and both use the same formal invention where snippets of conversations, jokes, various media and correspondence combine to an impressive whole. The focus in Weather is less on one marriage and one maybe-affair, but rather on the planet as a whole, and the millions of people who trample all over it, just trying to get by. This is most poignantly related through the character of Henry: his fear as a new father, his failure as a new husband, his inability to move on from his past and the crippling anxieties that continue to plague him. “My brain feels scraped, he said.”

If there is a negative to Weather, it is that we are left wanting more from all of these characters. By turns profound and hilarious, it is the kind of book where you don’t want to miss a line, especially the joke about time going backwards: “We don’t serve time travellers here. A time traveller walks into a bar.” Like so much of Offill’s writing, it takes a moment to hit you and then you feel instantly entertained and educated. To read a Jenny Offill novel is to come away feeling more engaged with the world and a little less alone.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts