By Howard Trachtman, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Co-editor, LitMed Database.
Jenny Offill’s new book, Weather was reviewed in the New York Times and other high prestige publications in the middle of February, right before the COVID-19 pandemic exploded into the communal consciousness. Her timing is impeccable and the release date for the book could not have been scheduled more perfectly.
Weather is comprised of short paragraphs that move the plot forward interspersed with dark humor, historical asides, and wide ranging factoids about science, history and psychology. The main character, Lizzie, is a lapsed PhD candidate who is working as a librarian in Brooklyn. She earns money on the side answering increasingly bizarre questions posted on a fictional website, called “Hell or High Water,” that is hosted by her former thesis advisor. Her marriage to Ben seems secure, and her son Eli exudes cuteness. But Lizzie has to look out for a brother with a drug problem and a failed marriage and a mother who needs constant support, financial and emotional. The glue that holds these pieces of contemporary life together is Lizzie’s ever-present angst about her life, her identity, her place in the social scheme of things and most importantly the fate of the planet in a time of accelerating climate change. The writing is crisp, each section like a quotable epigram. Weather captures the zeitgeist, alternating seamlessly between deep empathy, mordant satire and laugh out loud humor.
Offill is wise beyond her years. Her prose synthesizes a coherent whole out of the rapidly changing features of modern life. The quickening pace, the non-stop attention to mundane details, the overabundance of facts but the shortfall in genuine knowledge are conveyed skillfully in this deceptively brief book. The book has a conversational quality and can be read in one sitting, like scanning texts on your cellphone. Offill‘s voice resonates loudly in the empty streets of New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak
But profound questions lurk beneath the surface. Yes, everyone is always talking about the weather but can we do anything about it? Can we expect to change forecasts of snow, rain, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, or rising temperatures around the world? How should a single person, virtually powerless as an individual, address such large issues, cope with the demands of staying alive?
One could call Offill’s novel the avatar for the age of climate anxiety. Nevertheless, is that something worth writing about? Kafka certainly made a name for himself with novels that conveyed the inscrutable nature of life in the modern age. Impenetrable gates, sudden morphological transformations, corporal sentencing – these are the Kafkaesque antecedents to unseen atmospheric changes, shrinking coral reefs, and infectious agents. His characters are constantly perplexed by their circumstances, mystified and paralyzed by forces that they can neither perceive nor comprehend. But does anything good emerge from anxiety?
There are trained scientists who work in a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the Epidemiology Intelligence Service. Their mission and operating procedures were profiled in a recent article in the New Yorker magazine (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/04/seattles-leaders-let-scientists-take-the-lead-new-yorks-did-not). In brief, their job is to explain to the public what is happening in real time during pandemics and instruct and persuade people to do what is needed to contain an emerging infection. They operate under the assumption that panic is actually necessary under the circumstances, because only when people reach that emotional state will they respond and implement the difficult interventions required to reverse a pandemic. Controlled panic, but panic nonetheless. Anxiety is not enough because it is not sufficient to get the broad public support needed for comprehensive public health measures.
So where does that leave us with Offill’s anxious Lizzie? Apprehension is a key element in any good story. We call it suspense. Usually it centers on dealing with a personal dilemma or confronting a critical action that needs to be taken. A good current example is the moving depiction of the struggle to establish a sexual identity in Julie Orringer’s fictional depiction of Varian Fry’s life in The Flight Portrait. What makes Offill’s book unique is that the anxiety centers on the impersonal forces of nature in addition to the usual human interactions. However, a novel is not the place to articulate a comprehensive plan to address global warming. Great literature does not aim to provoke panic. Its goal is to broaden understanding and make life experience more accessible and recognizable. Offill’s book succeeds in humanizing anxiety and reduces the sense of isolation that can compound the worry and fears that affect all of us living in the 21st century. Paradoxically, by taking the edge off of the growing anxiety surrounding climate change, Offill may enable us to reach a level of intelligent panic that will motivate us to take the steps needed to salvage the planet for ourselves and our children.
For more about Weather please read Howard Carter’s annotation in the LitMed Database.