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Jenny Offill’s Weather is the climate change novel you’ve been waiting for

This spare, searing novel asks how we live at the end of the world, which is right now.

“Weather” by Jenny Offill Left: Knopf. Right: Emily Tobey.

Jenny Offill’s Weather is a novel about living at the end of the world, which is to say that it is a novel about being alive right now. It’s about trying to understand climate change and motherhood — concepts so big that the mind can’t quite look at them dead on — by looking at them slantwise, through the smallest possible unit of thought.

Weather is narrated by Lizzie, a former PhD student who dropped out halfway through writing her dissertation; now she works at her former university’s library. For extra money, she also works as an assistant for her old thesis adviser, who runs an environmental podcast called Hell or High Water. Lizzie’s job is to answer letters from terrified listeners.

When shes not working, Lizzie tends to her small son, Eli, who is attending a giant new school that Lizzie frets is “not on the human scale.” She also helps her recovering addict brother, Henry, tend to his newborn daughter. She jokes comfortably with her husband, Ben, about leaving him.

Offill tells Lizzie’s story in a series of discrete units that are less like fragments than they are like a series of river pebbles: polished to a diamond brilliance, with no sharp edges. We enter each one without context, half-blind. “In the morning, the one who is mostly enlightened comes in,” Weather begins, referring to a Zen teacher who visits Lizzie’s library. It goes on from there, leaving us to find our way around.

The idea of being “mostly enlightened” is central to Weather, which wrestles elliptically with religion. The epigraph, taken from minutes from a Connecticut town meeting in 1640, reads, “Voted, that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; voted, that the earth is given to the Saints; voted, that we are the Saints.”

“Voted, that we are the saints,” Lizzie thinks again on July Fourth. She intermittently attends church services and Zen meditation classes, but they terrify her. She keeps coming up short at the idea that death is inevitable, and not just her own, but also her family’s.

“Aw, c’mon, man,” she thinks, after repeating that she will have to let go of everything and everyone she loves. “Everything and everyone I love? Is there one for beginners maybe?”

This is the central problem interrogated in Weather: How do we live under the belief that we are at the end of the world? How do we live our lives, care for our families, mother, work, and love, from within the apocalypse of the Anthropocene?

As Lizzie spends more and more time working on Hell or High Water, she begins to stockpile and hoard survival tips, like how to start a fire with a gum wrapper and a battery; how to catch fish with only your shirt and your spit. She strategizes her “doomstead” plans. She’ll build on a hill for protection for floods and defense from marauders, she thinks, and surround her encampment with a moat.

Meanwhile, Henry fantasizes relentlessly about all the ways he might find himself accidentally hurting his daughter. He writes them down and reads them to Lizzie so that he won’t act them out, relaying to her all the ways in which he pictures the baby “burned, smothered, strangled, flayed.”

Lizzie rips up the fantasies, but Henry’s desires only literalize what she fears she has accomplished herself. She has burned and smothered and strangled and flayed her child’s future, because all of us have. We’ve killed the world. And so now, how do we live in it?

That question is nearly impossible to confront without despair, but Offill’s form allows her to get closer than most writers. Those tiny units of story work like Zen koans: they are so opaque, and yet so deadpan and unflinching, that as they accumulate, we find ourselves brought closer and closer to the truth we could not bear to look at if it were presented to us head-on. We come so close that Weather feels honest and unsparing in a way few other novels about climate change have managed.

And that honesty is what makes it satisfying when Lizzie fumbles her way toward an answer to her question: When you have destroyed the world, you live in it with hope, is what she suggests at the end of the novel. With impossible hope, and prayers for mercy and grace. By building a garden and watching it grow.