[5] Weather by Jenny Offill

Book Cover: [5] Weather by Jenny Offill

BOOK: Weather
AUTHOR: Jenny Offill
YEAR: 2020
PUBLISHER: Granta / Penguin

Meet Lizzie Benson, a university librarian living in Brooklyn with her family. Her former mentor Sylvia hosts a popular climate change podcast ‘Hell and High Water’. She hires Lizzie to assist her in answering the doomsday mail that she receives, messages that span the political spectrum.

The fifth book that we will be reading together in the LAX LAB book club is Weather by Jenny Offill. Weather is part of an expanding subset of climate fiction that is not set off in some distant, possible, dystopian future. Weather takes place in our present where climate change is woven into the fabric and concerns of everyday life. Taking place in New York City, the novel is an exploration of Trump’s America and the rise of the right. With wit and dark humour, Jenny Offill explores the angst of this moment. It is about the weather of climate change but also the weather of politics, emotions, and the personal.

Given the approaching election in the United States (and all the anxiety that comes with it), this novel should be a particularly salient read. Though many of us are neither from nor living in the United States, we are all very much affected by the country’s politics and its strange political weather. The sparse prose and narrative structure are a departure from the novels that we have been reading so far.

Climate anxiety

[Spoiler alert! If you have not yet read the book, you may wish to turn back.]

On the 5th of November 2020, President-elect of the United States Joe Biden tweeted the following: ‘Today the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden administration will rejoin it.’ Weather by Jenny Offill does not examine the specific climate politics of the Trump administration. Instead, through the narrator Lizzie Benson, we see the ways in which the election of Trump in 2016 and the shifting political atmosphere filters into everyday experience. Weather is not an overly plot-driven book and its narrative style differs from previous climate fiction that we have read together so far. The story emerges through carefully curated vignettes, quotes, jokes, wry observations, musings, and very many questions.

Provocation 1: People also ask ...

What will disappear from stores first? Why do humans need myths? Do we live in the Anthropocene? When will humans go extinct? How did we end up here? Questions are an integral part of Jenny Offill’s novel Weather. The book is overflowing with questions – some practical, some philosophical, some rhetorical. Lizzie was hired by her former mentor Sylvia to assist in answering the questions that arrive in connection with her popular climate change podcast ‘Hell and High Water’. It is primarily through these questions that climate change enters into the narrative. The questions that Lizzie mulls over prompt the reader to do the same, particularly as many of these questions go unanswered in the text. Many of the questions focus on how we should live in this moment and how we should prepare to live in a future inevitability altered by climate change. The range of questions reveals something of the polarity of climate change as an issue in the United States and through different characters, we move between hope and hopelessness, indignation and resignation, action and inaction, the political and apolitical.

How does the form of the book (vignettes, questions, etc) relate to or contribute to understandings of climate change? What is the purpose of the questions posed throughout the book?

What worldviews emerge through the different questions posed?

Were there questions that resonated with you? What questions are burning in you?

Provocation 2: Politics and obligatory notes of hope

Following the election, a sign on the door of a grocery store in the small town where Ben’s sister lives bears the sign ‘NO POLITICS, PLEASE’ (p.116). Though the book deals with politics in different ways and reflects on the election of Trump, it does not necessarily make explicit connections between national politics and climate change. At times, climate change seems to operate independently of the populist politics the narrator reflects upon. The characters that our narrator encounters represent a range of worldviews, from emboldened racists to dreary environmentalists, from hippies to hipsters, evangelicals to burnt-out academics. In her communications on climate change, no matter the audience, Sylvia mentions that she must always include the obligatory note of hope.

How does the political landscape of the United States influence the portrayal of climate change in the book?

How does the novel deal with politics? How are the politics of climate change discussed?

What are the obligatory notes of hope that emerge in the book, political or otherwise?


Author website
Jenny Offill

Obligatory note of hope (Website that goes along with book)

Articles, essays, and other non-fiction
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich

'Weather by Jenny Offill review – wit for the end times'
Kate Clanchy, The Guardian, 13 February 2020

'Biden says the US will rejoin the Paris climate agreement in 77 days. Then Australia will really feel the heat'
Christian Downie, The Conversation, 6 November 2020

'Does Trump’s defeat signal the start of populism’s decline?'
Mark Landler and Melissa Eddy, New York Times, 10 November 2020

'Stormy 'Weather' captures our anxious age with bracing wit'
Heller McAlpin, NPR, 11 February 2020

'In swing states, Biden voters have climate anxiety. Trump voters don’t'
Emily Pontecorvo, Grist, 3 November 2020

'Disaster ‘prepping’ was once an American pastime. Today, it’s mainstream again'
Nina Strochlic, National Geographic, 10 November 2020

'Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’ Is emotional, planetary and very turbulent'
Ping Zhu, New York Times, 7 February 2020

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Music and other audio
'Jenny Offill’s obligatory note of hope' 
First Draft podcast with Mitzi Rapkin, 2 March 2020

We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service  (2016) by A Tribe Called Quest

The Times They Are A-Changin'  (1964) by Bob Dylan

Emma Arnold