About a third of the way through Jenny Offill’s second novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” the unnamed narrator gives a brief account of Manichaeism: “The Manicheans believed the world was filled with imprisoned light, fragments of a God who destroyed himself because he no longer wished to exist,” the narrator notes dispassionately. Like a good deal of the other fragments that make up the novel, this anecdote is never explicitly explained or tied into a thematic concern — it just stands as-is for the reader to interpret how they would like to. Sometimes these anecdotal pieces come back when something else reminds the narrator of it.
Offill doesn’t coyly include passages that state the aims of her game, but this passage works for an encapsulation of her method and its place in the history of the novel — she scatters fragments of a Realist god that no longer works for the narrative aims of contemporary authors. In lieu of a quest, we have crate-digging and rumination, the movement of ideas in a mind. Each little fragment is a premise the narrator is testing, a moment to consider and weigh in the mesh of the whole. Historical anecdotes and quotes from writers have the same weight in the narrator’s mind as the literal events of her life. All of it is evidence. There’s no real quest for an Offill narrator, there’s just a lot of casting around, like a person after a shipwreck grabbing for pieces of driftwood.
It’s a useful form to depict a crisis with no easy answer. In “Dept. of Speculation” this crisis was a woman considering separation from an adulterous husband who she clearly still cares for. In her new novel, “Weather,” Offill’s narrator is a deeply empathetic person trying to reckon with climate change, a problem that doesn’t really have any solutions on the level of the individual. The title is apt — the word “weather” can be thought of as the phenomenological experience of climate on a day-to-day basis. You might notice that it’s getting warmer earlier in the year or that it’s raining more, but all you’re really doing is being anecdotal. You’re not talking about the climate.
The outside citations in “Weather” are a little more focused than in “Dept. of Speculation.” Lizzie, the failed grad student and current librarian was writing a dissertation on comparative religion when she dropped out of school and is married to a similarly failed classicist. The fragments that Lizzie culls to look at her own life are frequently considerations of ethics and morality. She seems to share the ambivalence of a lot of millennials and younger Gen-Xers, an aversion to unqualified earnestness that dovetails with very real concern about the direction society is moving. Her commitment to compassion stands out — she takes a car service run by a man named Jimmy who lost the rest of his drivers (she says she does it “because I’m ridiculous”). At one point, Lizzie finds herself repeating a mantra in the shower — “Sentient creatures are numberless. I vow to save them.”
Lizzie’s porousness, the way things tend to get under her skin, makes her unsuited for the job she starts at the beginning of the novel — she works for her former dissertation adviser, Sylvia, who travels around for a series of TED-like lectures and maintains a podcast about the end of the world. Lizzie’s job is to respond to the emails listeners of the podcast send in. Lizzie gets swept up into the world of the weirdos and doomsday preppers who ask Sylvia questions — even as Lizzie makes fun of them and maintains a kind of critical distance, she starts to participate in their world, to read “prepper” blogs and start stockpiling lighters and first-aid equipment. In the meantime, she is taking care of her brother, a former addict who is engaged to a woman Lizzie doesn’t like (she describes her as “a weird mix of hard-edged and hippie-minded”), taking care of her son Eli and negotiating life as a working mother in Brooklyn. Her life continually intersects with her work in strange ways, and part of the pleasure of this novel is the sense of total immersion in someone’s mind that Offill’s atemporal narrative methods allow for.
This novel is more thematically compact than “Dept. of Speculation,” which tended to sprawl a little. It’s also more fluidly organized: instead of the chapter breaks in the earlier novel (what are those for exactly?) “Weather” is split into six long sections of continuous movement. It plays to the advantages of the form, driving home the free-fall quality. Offill seems to have a better grasp on the different uses of the fragment form here. “Dept. of Speculation” was pretty consistently all-over-the-place; in “Weather” there are moments that resemble the paragraphs of traditional fiction and there are moments that resemble the discontinuity of a Twitter feed. In all respects — the development of the thematic concerns, the skill with which the form is used — this novel feels like a graceful, organic progression from the earlier book at a moment where the form Offill helped inaugurate is at risk of being reduced to a cliché or a stock method.