These days, everything wants to kill us. “Postapocalyptic” was the go-to modifier of the last decade, as the media discovered thousands of ways to sex up our obliteration. Certainly there’s no shortage of inspiration. Every recent threat to human safety or human rights seems to have an analogue in pop culture: The Hunger Games for wealth inequality, The Handmaid’s Tale for the patriarchy, Watchmen for white supremacist terrorism, The Rain for pollution, Black Mirror for techno-fetishism, Person of Interest for mass surveillance, Contagion for pandemics, and dozens of zombie narratives as a kind of catch-all for the collapse of civilization. Of course, the irony is that you can watch and game and post all day about the world ending, and though it sort of feels as if you’re doing something about it, you’re not really doing anything at all.
One wonders what the consequences of such widespread cultural eschatology might be and whether it’s a natural coping mechanism or a self-fulfilling prophecy. It may be that a generation of young people has not only internalized the idea of an impending apocalypse but is also crafting its own art from that internalization. The last decade ended with a death wish; young doomers ate Tide Pods, and they joked about having celebrities back over them with dump trucks. This is a generation raised on Post Malone (“It seem like dying young is an honor”) and Lil Peep (“I ain’t tryna live, pray I die”), and its collective idea of a good time is watching 13 Reasons Why and joining Facebook groups like Memes That Kill You Instantly. If millennial culture has warned us that the world is going to kill us, Gen Z culture has responded, “Not if we get there first.”
You could read both tendencies as ways to avoid caring too much. Which might make you wonder what the alternatives are, whether there’s a better way to reckon with threats to human survival. Jenny Offill’s latest novel, Weather, takes up this question. Its characters suffer from the opposite problem: They do almost nothing but care. Mainly they worry about climate change—how it will affect them, what they should do about it now, and what kind of long-term preparations they should make as it continues. Yet all this climate anxiety seems to do is ruin their sleep. “Everyone I know is trying to sleep less,” the narrator, Lizzie, muses. “Insomnia as a badge of honor. Proof that you are paying attention.” These literary characters, full of empathy, seriousness, and sincerity, seem just as paralyzed as everyone else.
A follow-up to Offill’s 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, about a middle-aged writer and mother caught in a strained marriage, Weather is also about a middle-aged mother caught in a strained marriage but now also deeply troubled by the impending climate catastrophe. In this way, Weather is definitely not what I’d call entertaining; it’s a beach read for those who like to worry about the beaches. But the book also poses a set of important questions to us. If pop culture asks us to find the fun in human extinction, then Weather does the opposite, insisting that we take seriously the frazzled, burned-out experience of living when you know we’re all in for a very bad time.
Set immediately before and after the 2016 election, Weather’s plot is scant. Lizzie works in a university library and has a recovering addict brother. She answers depressing e-mails part-time for a doomsaying climate podcast and has an emotional affair with a war reporter. The usual dramatic beats you’d find in a domestic novel—fights, cheating, divorce—get skipped. The book’s foreboding tone leads us to expect something bad will happen, but not much happens at all.
In part, that’s because the worst has already happened—in real life, to all of us. We’ve already blown past 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2 and locked in at least 1 degree Celsius of warming from preindustrial levels, with many places seeing a rise of 1.5°C. At a 2°C rise, NASA tells us, drinking water will become scarce, and droughts will increase, which will probably lead to famines, and every year will bring more Katrinas, Sandys, Harveys, and Marias. Whatever doesn’t drown in the rising sea will—like Australia in recent months—parch and burn. Some 8 percent of vertebrate species will be in danger of extinction, and mosquito-borne diseases will skyrocket. Also, humankind will prove to be one of the worst hazards: As climate refugees flee the Global South, fascist leaders will scapegoat them and turn the richer nations into fortified garrisons.
Novels should be able to tackle anything, but climate change seems uniquely resistant to narrative. It’s inconceivably vast and complex, and aside from Greta Thunberg, there are few recognizable heroes. The direct cause—invisible gases in the sky—feels remote and abstract, and the deadly parade of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and droughts are normalized by their very frequency. All of which makes for a story that’s as boring as it is terrifying.
The current attempts at cli-fi tackle this conundrum in different ways. Ian McEwan in Solar and Barbara Kingsolver in Flight Behavior bring things down to human scale by making climate change a picturesque backdrop for personal drama, while far-future novels like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and Anna North’s America Pacifica envision speculative worlds so intricately alien as to seem far-fetched. On the other hand, fictions about the future we might well live to see, like Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow and Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, are terrifyingly plausible—enough to send any normal reader into denial. It’s not that these novels fail on their own terms but that the demands of storytelling often run at odds with making climate change feel urgent; it’s either not real enough or all too real.
Offill skirts many of the difficulties of portraying climate change by not portraying it at all. This is a pre-apocalyptic novel, and its subject is dread, not disaster. We get none of the usual tableaux of flooded skyscrapers, huddled masses, or Cat 5 hurricanes. Where action’s concerned, we mostly watch Lizzie go to work, pick up the mail, and clean mouse crap off her spice rack. Like her brother, she’s an addict, but in her case the Internet is the spike in her vein. She spends her nights “googling prepper things” like “climate departure” and “doomsteading.” She becomes a lint trap for scary factoids, such as how New York City’s 6,000 miles of sewer pipe are all below sea level, and the book’s main trick is to imbue the mundanity of the present with the horror of the future. When walnuts hit Lizzie’s roof, she hears gunshots. Someone mentions apples, and she thinks, “No more apples soon; apples need frost.” Even a normal game of Settlers of Catan puts her in mind of the coming resource wars: “If you give me wood, I’ll give you some wheat and a brick.”
Offill’s focus on capturing these wabi-sabi moments of dread is so encompassing that the book does little else. Reading it is like trying to remember a whole year of daily occurrences, stray impressions and random events flitting by without a strong sense of continuity or time passing. In lieu of a plotline, we get recurring motifs—passing mentions of mild weather (“weird clouds, hazy sun,” “it’s nice out”), survivalism, stabs of white liberal guilt, some knee pain. In little inset boxes, we see the e-mails Lizzie answers on behalf of her podcaster boss, and over the course of the book her replies grow darker and increasingly gnomic:
Q: How do you maintain your optimism?
A: If you are not getting enough iron, put a few iron nails into a bowl of lemon juice and leave it overnight. In the morning, make lemonade out of it.
Given the ecological interest, maybe it’s fitting that so many aspects of the book are recycled, specifically from Offill’s previous novel. Both are narrated by a bookish, somewhat unhappily married New Yorker with a young child, a casual interest in Buddhism, and a side gig writing for a powerful person. Both are bisected by game-changing events that happen in the wings, separate from the main action, and both stage the intimate heartaches of daily life against the wonders of the natural world. Both even include podcasts about climate change (though they’re called “recorded lectures” in Dept. of Speculation). Most conspicuously, both take the form of a collage, a slender dossier of factoids, proverbs, parables, jokes, found texts, and other ephemera mixed with bursts of narration.
Yet if Dept. of Speculation is wistful and contemplative, Weather is tinged with political ire, however understated it may be. Lizzie takes a few sidelong potshots at Donald Trump and capitalism but reserves her choicest words for the anti-humanism of Silicon Valley, the technocrats less interested in saving humankind than in abandoning it, whether it’s by jets to Mars, bunkers in New Zealand, or transhuman exits from meatspace. She reads of plans to genetically engineer humans with cat’s eyes that would require less light. “These people long for immortality but can’t wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee,” Lizzie’s boss quips.
You might expect a novel about climate change to serve as some kind of rallying cry, yet Offill doesn’t provide much in the way of redemptive uplift or even any handy coping tips (though here’s one from me: Log off). Like Lizzie’s boss, who complains of having to tack an “obligatory note of hope” onto something she is writing, Offill is reluctant in Weather to offer false comfort; if anything, it rules out the usual avenues of solace.
Lizzie’s failed attempts at meditation merely underscore her inability to detach from the material world, and everything from using antibacterial soap to eating a ham sandwich is cause for guilt. Naturally, this puts a strain on her relationships—her fed-up husband calls her a “crazy doomer”—and her shortcomings as a parent are magnified, as in this exchange with her son:
A few days later, I yelled at him for losing his new lunch box, and he turned to me and said, Are you sure you’re my mother? Sometimes you don’t seem like a good enough person.
He was just a kid, so I let it go. And now, years later, I probably only think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day.
Even the respite she finds in her affair with the war reporter, whom she meets in a bar, is eventually spoiled. “So sure, maybe I could charm him for a while,” she reflects, “but when the shine wore off? How long until he figured out I can’t chop wood or light a fire?”
Although climate change will likely ravage everyone but the billionaires, it’s still important to point out that white, middle-class librarians in New York won’t have the worst of it, and it’s maybe for this reason that the novel somewhat sheepishly avoids any direct polemics or calls to action, though it drops hints throughout. “Survival instructors have a saying,” Lizzie muses. “Get organized or die.” Her boss, on the other hand, advises her to get “very, very rich.” But it may be that Offill does not believe that is the role of fiction. Novelists, after all, are under no obligation to provide solutions; their books aren’t survival guides. They only have to tell compelling stories, and Offill succeeds in distilling the queasy, tranquil terror of a 93°F day in October—like the one we had in New York last fall.
But it’s natural to be discomfited by the fact that at the novel’s end, Lizzie is still mired in the same anxious paralysis, and one is still left with unanswered questions about how we might be able to escape it. Is Weather just an exercise in highbrow bourgeois hand-wringing? Is reading—and for that matter, writing—empathetic stories while the world warms any better than watching zombie movies or posting Tide Pod memes? With 12 short years on the clock to avoid the worst, can anyone justify sitting in a room for several years to produce any work of art, much less one made of trees? To misquote Auden, if novels make nothing happen, should we make them? As a tree killer myself, I often feel that writing in the face of climate change is like seeing a mushroom cloud, turning to your assembled screaming neighbors, and saying, “Yo, let me tell you about the weirdest dream I had last night!”
A more productive way to read Weather might be to understand its dread as willfully exhausting and useless. By the end of the book, it’s impossible to think that worrying alone is going to solve anything. At the very least, dread implies a desire to live, and many of us who have done enough worrying are ready to hit the streets. Even the doomer zoomers are now turning out. At last September’s worldwide climate strike, a kid in a black punk get-up held a sign that said, “I want to die but the planet doesn’t.”
Despite its steadfast lack of wishful thinking, Weather finally drops its pessimistic kayfabe after its conclusion, as if to express that activism must extend beyond the novel. In a postscript, Offill adds a link to a website, obligatorynoteofhope.com. As I write this review, the link leads only to teasers for essays on “Why collective action is the antidote to fear and dread,” “How to get involved in the fight for social and climate justice,” and “What to do if (like me) you hate to march.” The essays weren’t available yet; much like the problems, the answers, I really hope, are “COMING SOON.”