It’s difficult to read Jenny Offill’s very good new novel, Weather, without harkening back to her previous effort, Dept. of Speculation, which was outright spectacular. Fortunately, there are a number of similarities between the books. Two of the main characters from Dept. of Speculation are re-envisioned in new guises in Weather: an only child on whom the narrator dotes, and a well-educated, sometimes distant husband. Both novels are short and composed mostly of brief paragraphs packed with insight, wry humor and despair. And neither book is especially concerned with plot. One thing happens, and then another; cause and effect are intentionally blurred. However, since the novels mostly operate in discrete sections of one to six sentences, plot is far less important than the impact of the narrator’s latest moment of observation or intuition.
The narrator of Weather is Lizzie Benson, a college librarian who also answers emails addressed to her former college professor Sylvia, a popular podcaster whose show, Hell or High Water, focuses on the end of the world. Lizzie is good at both jobs, partly because she is an inveterate notice of things. Weather is propelled by her perspicuity and peppered with jokes that riff on recurring themes. One example: “We don’t serve time travelers here. A time traveler walks into a bar.” And another: “Q: How does a Unitarian walk on water? A: She waits until winter.”
As in Dept. of Speculation, these attempts at comedy seem to spring largely from a desperate need to ward off imminent doom. They don’t quite succeed, of course, but then again, that’s Offill’s point.
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