Jenny Offill, like David Bowie, Talking Heads and Coldplay before her, has credited Brian Eno with improving her artistic process. The US writer has declared herself a “fan” of the musician’s Oblique Strategies cards, which feature prompts such as: “Use an old idea”; “Ask your body”; and “Work at a different speed”. She has even come up with her own game, which she calls Library Roulette. She will wander around a library – “preferably a second-rate university library, with out-of-date reference books” – opening up random volumes, searching for something that “pings”, some snippet or fact that is “beautiful or momentous”.
“It’s probably the closest I come to a religious ritual in my life, this library wandering,” Offill explained, in an interview with Foyles bookshop around the time her second novel Dept. of Speculation was published in 2014. An experimental story about marriage, creative hunger and loneliness, fizzing with comedy and sorrow, Dept. Of Speculation was loved by readers and praised by writers for blowing open the possibilities of the novel.
It’s not hard to trace the impact of library wandering on Offill’s fiction – not least because in her third novel, Weather, her narrator, Lizzie, works in a university library in Brooklyn. “There are little signs everywhere in the library now that say BREATHE! BREATHE!” she notes. “How did everyone get so good at this breathing thing? I feel like it all happened when I was away.”
Lizzie has plenty of reasons to hyperventilate. She worries about her narcissistic, recovering drug addict brother; about her young son’s future at a crowded New York elementary school; and about the familiar late capitalist doomsday checklist: the climate crisis, rising fascism, precarious socio-economic circumstances. “According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures by 2047,” Lizzie learns. Her anxieties only accelerate after the 2016 presidential election.
Weather is written in episodic vignettes, between a sentence and paragraph long. Offill’s fragmented style first emerged in Dept. of Speculation, salvaged from the ruins of a more conventional infidelity novel that had received an underwhelming response from publishers. At the suggestion of a poet friend, she wrote a hundred of the best bits on index cards and shuffled them around. She ended up with a jagged, elliptical story about a woman who longs to be an “art monster” – someone who puts her art before everything else – but finds herself saddled with a collapsing marriage, frustrating motherhood and work obligations.
Offill’s narration zooms from the micro to the macro, taking the form of musings, jokes, trivia, confessions, facts, tick-box surveys, Q&As and snatches of memory. You have to work hard as a reader to fill in the context, but it’s work that feels like play. As in jazz, the magic lies between the notes: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” as Miles Davis once counselled. We are drawn towards the unsaid. Eventually, a narrative emerges from this constellation of half-glimpsed images and confessions.
It is the story of Lizzie, whose 40-something look – “drab clothes and fancy glasses” – is so retro that it has come back into fashion among the students on campus. These are young people with insanely high expectations for their lives. One complains that her phone takes several seconds to respond to her touch. Another declares “failure is not an option”. Lizzie recalls that before she had a family, she, too, had ambitions: “Biggish ones, medium at least.” Now her greatest fear is “the acceleration of days”, she says. “No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.” She experiences it in her sore knee, in a painful tooth, and in the increasingly sophisticated questions posed by her son, Eli, who she worries will not be equipped for resource scarcity.
Apocalyptic angst begins to play a more direct role in her life when she takes on a second job answering emails for her former university tutor, Sylvia, now a futurist who hosts a popular podcast called Hell or High Water. Sylvia’s voice is soothing, “even though she talks only of the invisible horsemen galloping towards us”. She wants to “rewild” half the planet. The billionaires who fund her podcast prefer to invest in “de-extinction”, which might involve genetically engineered woolly mammals and sabre-toothed tigers.
But Lizzie’s low-rumbling fears (“dentistry, humiliation, scarcity”) are drowned out by her brother, Henry, who is always on the point of breakdown. He fixates on footage of refugees trying to make their way to safety, particularly the image of a man who has to carry his child 34 miles. After Henry impregnates his advertising executive girlfriend, Catherine – a glorious caricature of a highly strung, hippyish materialist – all his neuroses bubble to the surface.
Meanwhile Lizzie’s easy-going, Jewish husband Ben worries that she has “become a crazy doomer”. Ben is a thoughtful computer games designer whose small acts of love include scrubbing off all the rat poo in their kitchen – but once Donald Trump is elected, he becomes convinced that they will both lose their jobs and dental plans. Lizzie is too caught up with Henry and the doomsayers to notice Ben and Eli’s needs, but in the back of her mind, she knows that their hurried, cramped, distracted existence in Brooklyn is “wrong living” – a phrase that Offill also used in Dept. of Speculation to describe the late capitalist malaise.
You could say that Offill’s previous novel was about “rewilding” a good relationship that had been taken for granted; about feeling unseen and the power of a stranger seeing you anew. Weather touches on similar themes of romantic frustration and temptation but Offill’s concerns here are wider. What does it mean to be a “good person, a moral person” during times of crisis? Should we judge ourselves differently? How do we adjust?
The book’s humour often arises from the puncturing of these concerns. Lizzie is easily wound up by a fellow parent, Nicola, whose son is “gifted and talented”, as well as the precious earth mothers in her meditation class. One woman, six-months pregnant, informs her that she has been “fortunate enough to spend a great deal of time in the melted ego world. But I find I have trouble coming back to the differentiated ego world, the one you were just talking about where you have to wash the dishes and take out the garbage.”
“Oh don’t worry,” Lizzie thinks, “the differentiated world is coming for your ass.”
Offill’s style recalls stand-up comedy, particularly the vulnerable, baffled schtick of the US comedians Maria Bamford and Louis CK. There are emotional switchbacks and non sequiturs as well as straight-forward gags. When asked whether she ever wishes she was 30 again, Lizzie says no and tells a joke:
We don’t serve time travellers here
A time traveller walks into a bar.
It’s not just a casual laugh. Offill believes the ironies of life only emerge over the fullness of time.
Her prose is also indebted to the internet. Both Dept. of Speculation and Weather are brimming with heart-catching lines that would fit nicely into a tweet: “Terrible fears one minute! Apathy the next!” (I can see “#artmonster” making a good tote bag slogan too.) In some ways, Offill’s library wandering, full of distraction and experiment, is an analogue version of falling down an internet wormhole.
She captures that awed sense that the world is infinitely complicated. Her koan-like musings reach far beyond themselves to express the feeling of being alive – the panic and disappointment as well as the moments of transcendence.
On a more earthly level, Offill’s approach to writing recalls motherhood. Just as you are beginning to reconcile your prior solipsism with your new-found life wisdom, you are interrupted. A child – or the apocalypse – demands your attention. Virginia Woolf specialised in this interrupted consciousness; so, in a more laconic way, did Denis Johnson, both of whom Offill has cited as influences. Like her contemporary, George Saunders, she is engaged with Buddhist ideas. All states of being are inherently interesting and we shouldn’t privilege the happy ones. “Accept all of it. Nothing human is alien to me,” she has said.
Offill returns us to the world anew. There is life before death – perhaps not much – but it’s still something. Hope is the hardest thing to give up. “Of course, the world continues to end,” Sylvia tells Lizzie, then gets off the phone to water her garden.
Johanna Thomas-Corr is a New Statesman contributing writer
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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out