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'Weather': Jenny Offill's Novel Offers Witty Take On Climate Change

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In the novel Weather by Jenny Offill, protagonist Lizzie Benson does worry about the weather — as in climate change, but also the political and social climates of today. She’s also worried about many more issues that are closer to home and that feel as irresolvable.

Set against the backdrop of the 2016 elections and the looming anxiety-causing evidence of climate change with which the protagonist obsesses, Weather by Jenny Offill is a novel for our times. This is a very slim novel, but it carries the depth and breadth of a much longer tome made intricate by its many hefty subjects and themes. Lizzie is a librarian but lacks the traditional degree for that role. She’s taken care of her mother and a brother who is a recovering addict for years. She has always been the stabilizing force at home for her husband and son. She’s worked part time, too, as an assistant to Sylvia, who hosts a podcast called Hell and High Water. In this role Lizzie becomes more acquainted with how polarized our country is. Staying on means diving more deeply into the divide and not tending her own garden — one that’s been neglected for too long.

Highlights from the Interview with Jenny Offill

On what this book is all about — the short version

If I was going to give a short answer, I would say that it's about a librarian and a mother who becomes obsessed with climate change after she starts answering questions for someone who does a podcast about it, and then it kind of goes from there.

On whether or not a novel like this one can help expand our understanding of climate change

I think it can be part of it. I think that what's happening right now, which I find very heartening, is that a lot of people are coming at the question of how to deal with the climate crisis from whatever their area of expertise is. So we may be hearing from people who are lawyers thinking about what they're going to do in terms of environmental law, about engineers that are working to figure out better ways to have sustainable energy and infrastructure. I think the role for someone like me is so much of climate change literature until recently has been of the apocalyptic sort, or post-apocalyptic, and it's sort of a scared-straight situation where you hear about how awful it will be in 2040 or 2050. At least for me, I feel like one of the things about living in this time is that one minute you can be really seriously thinking about what it might mean that a city like Miami is going to be not inhabitable. And the next minute you can be picking up your kid from practice and driving around in your car and not thinking about any of these things at all. And so I wanted to write a novel that was sort of a, I guess, pre-apocalyptic, and that it was about how we're managing this sort of twilight knowing-of-knowing that something very cataclysmic is happening, but not yet sure what our role is in finding it.

On her protagonist's sense of humor

I think it's definitely sort of part of the way I see the world to kind of make little jokes about it as it's in the book. But I also think it was a strategy in this novel because I felt like I wanted the main character to sort of almost reflexively joke in dark moments. And the difficulty was that I also didn't want her to be glib. I mean, I didn't want that. There's a lot of serious stuff in this book and I didn't want it to seem like it was undercutting that. So I tried to find the moments where she's just kind of recognizing the absurdity of something awful. The humor is sort of self-deprecating at her own expense... I think that for me, it's another way to kind of add a layer to the book and maybe so much of my past experience with trying to figure out if I could, I don't know, find a space where I could be an activist or whatever. I often felt quite intimidated by what felt like a self-righteous kind of tone. And I always felt like my own house is in such disarray. How can I imagine to help, you know, in these other areas? So I felt like something about her being a flawed, sort of funny character was, maybe a helpful way into some of these sort of overwhelming ideas.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.