In August 1968 The New Yorker published Donald Barthelme’s short story “Eugénie Grandet,” a two-page absurdist parody of Balzac’s 1833 novel about a wealthy provincial miser’s only child and her tragic efforts to defy him. A bit like Borges in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Barthelme takes a hefty canonical text and runs it through his particle accelerator of an imagination. All that remains of Balzac’s intricate psychological drama is a series of faux-naïf fragments. One of them is a quotation from The Thesaurus of Book Digests summarizing the novel’s plot; another the single sentence, “A great many people are interested in the question: Who will obtain Eugénie Grandet’s hand?”; another the word “butter” repeated 113 times. By condensing Balzac’s opus to a few paragraphs, Barthelme was having a laugh not just at his predecessor’s genteel circumlocution—his tendency to describe buildings and manufacturing procedures and family trees in lavish detail—but also at the conventions of novelistic mimesis itself. Dialogue, character development, the illusion of a frictionless causal continuity between one scene and the next: more than a century after the zenith of realism, Barthelme seemed to be asking, Weren’t we all getting a little old for this kind of thing?
Barthelme makes a brief appearance in Jenny Offill’s widely beloved second novel, Dept. of Speculation (2014), when its narrator, a promising young writer whose creative ambitions have been interrupted by the exigencies of motherhood, recalls the following exchange:
A student asked Donald Barthelme how he might become a better writer. Barthelme advised him to read through the whole history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics up through the modern-day thinkers. The student wondered how he could possibly do this. “You’re probably wasting time on things like eating and sleeping,” Barthelme said. “Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature.” Also art, he amended. Also politics.
Like Barthelme, Offill is a writer who has read widely and intelligently enough to understand just how much the contemporary reader can do without (and how little time he has to spare). At less than 180 pages, Dept. of Speculation is the result of an inspired demolition job. After spending years on a longer, more traditional novel that refused to come together, Offill stopped trying to force it; instead, she wrote out what she considered the best bits on index cards, then shuffled them around until she arrived at something she was happy with. The streamlined version, made up of elliptical yet propulsive fragments, many of them no more than a sentence long, tells the story of a marital crisis with the efficiency of a comic strip. Suggestive snippets of dialogue and description are juxtaposed with surreal factoids and literary quotes; Offill trusts the reader will know how to put these pieces together.
The index-card approach wasn’t simply a way out of a creative impasse, however; it was also a response to the particular demands of Offill’s material. As a young woman, the book’s unnamed narrator had planned never to get married. “I was going to be an art monster instead,” she tells us. “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” So it proves with the narrator who, in mundane fashion, falls in love, gets married, and has a child. It’s here that her troubles begin. Not only is motherhood antithetical to a life of artistic production; its monotony and relentlessness threaten to render it unnarratable. Offill’s rapid-fire account of the experience at once reflects the new parent’s scatterbrained, emotionally turbulent state of being and alleviates the subject matter’s inherent tedium. One moment, the narrator is reeling from the thrill of saying the words “my daughter” for the first time, her heart “beating too fast, as if I might be arrested.” The next, she is overcome with rage when she hears a woman on the subway using the hopelessly mistaken platitude “sleeping like a baby”: “I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.” Later, when her husband, a competent, caring man whom she’d trusted unconditionally, starts sleeping with a younger colleague at his office (“You fucked a child! She’s a fucking child!”), the same fractured narrative style just as fittingly captures the deranging psychic intensity of betrayal.
Dept. of Speculation marked a radical departure from Offill’s first novel, Last Things (1999), a more straightforwardly told tale of a disintegrating marriage as seen through the eyes of the couple’s young daughter. Her latest book, Weather, by contrast, represents an artistic staying of the course. Again we have as our narrator a searching, fretful, self-divided woman in early middle age, though this time, instead of a novelist, she is a librarian at the university where she failed to complete her Ph.D.; again the narrator is married to an even-keeled, attentive man whose role it is to calm and contain her anxiety, though this time it is the wife and not the husband who is led into temptation; again the couple live in Brooklyn with an only child, though this time it is a boy; and again Offill builds her story out of a series of clipped and cutting fragments, though this time, alas, her method lacks the element of surprise.
What’s new is an expanded sense of scale, an attempt by Offill to place her characters within a larger, more vividly congested social world. To be fair, Dept. of Speculation doesn’t play out in a vacuum, even if the prevailing mood is one of domestic claustrophobia. Members of the downwardly mobile creative class, the central couple have to pinch pennies and work multiple jobs, and this contributes to their marital discontent. In the end, their problems—or at least the economic ones—are solved when the narrator’s wealthy sister provides her with a rambling country house, where she and her family have the chance to start afresh. It’s a somewhat glib conclusion to an otherwise bracingly clear-eyed novel, but it reflects Offill’s preoccupation with social realities and the limits they impose on women who want to become “art monsters.”
In Weather, domesticity remains front and center, the source both of life’s deepest satisfactions and its deepest pain, but the social realities that bear down on it have metastasized. Not only does Lizzie, the narrator, worry that the spark has gone out of her marriage to Ben, who holds an advanced degree in classics but earns his living designing educational video games; the planet is also getting perilously hot. By 2047, she reads online, “New York will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures,” but the psychological alterations—the preemptive nostalgia for the present, the exhausting fear of the world to come—have already begun in earnest. When Donald Trump is elected halfway through the book, Lizzie’s free-floating anxiety finds a concrete outlet in the soothing fanaticism of prepper culture. She learns how to fish with chewing gum, that red ants taste “lemony,” and why, in a postapocalyptic situation, a thousand BIC lighters (cheap, tradable) might be a better source of power than a generator (heavy, loud).
But even as the background has grown in depth and detail, the canvas remains the same size. Like its predecessor, Weather is a brief novel that quietly mounts a case for the virtues of brevity. At one point, Lizzie mentions her obsession with “lost books, all the ones half written or recovered in pieces.” Offill’s own book comes to us pre-shattered, as it were, its form investing it with the aura of a document from a lost civilization. This feels appropriate, given her concern with looming societal collapse, and at their best the various narrative shards, laid out like stanzas, capture with a poetic intensity the self-parodic mania of contemporary life.
In one short sequence, a student tells Lizzie she’s decided not to get the latest smart phone. “I know I’m missing things because I can’t respond quickly enough to what people say or show me, but that’s okay,” the student says. “It gives me more time to think.” Lizzie, a liberal humanist who worries technology is flattening our souls, finds this endearing: “She seems practically like a transcendentalist.” Then the student takes out her phone:
It is exactly the same kind as mine. Mine is two years old but still retrieves things for me in the blink of an eye.
“Wait,” I say. “Were you talking about seconds? When you said you were so out of step and living slowly, did you mean by seconds?” She considers this. Yeah, she says, seconds probably.
If the choppy style of Offill’s last novel managed to distill something of a parent’s frazzled consciousness, in Weather the same style is called upon to register the atmospheric disturbances of our ADD culture at large. It is an audacious and, as it turns out, slightly misbegotten project, like painting a house with a toothbrush, but the problem isn’t simply one of scale. Offill can be witty and effortlessly profound; she can also be schmaltzy and banal. Unfortunately her chosen form leaves little room for error: when so much is left out, what remains is naturally going to bear a greater burden of scrutiny. In Dept. of Speculation, the narrator tells us that a Zen master who was asked to write a distillation of the highest wisdom responded with a single word—“Attention”—and Offill’s second novel, a display case of things acutely seen and heard, was a fine embodiment of this ideal. In Weather, the quality of attention has slackened.
One of the book’s plot threads involves Lizzie’s becoming a part-time assistant to her former mentor, Silvia, a public intellectual who hosts a popular podcast on climate change. The job involves attending fancy dinners with people on the board of a foundation that Silvia started. At one of these, Lizzie finds herself sitting next to a young tech entrepreneur who talks her ear off about the bright future that people like himself are bringing into being. When she tries to voice a skeptical opinion he ignores her and begins
to list all the ways he and his kind have changed the world and will change the world…. Soon everything in our lives will be hooked up to the internet of things, blah blah blah, and we will be connected through social media to every other person in the world.
Anyone who has ever met someone in tech or read about the industry will know that this is broadly how such people talk, but wouldn’t we be within our rights as readers to expect something a little more rigorous or surprising? In effect, Offill is signaling that what the man said was hardly worth paying attention to, but in that case, why bother telling us about it in the first place? The fact that the passage is set off on its own, floating poetically in white space, only underscores its weightlessness.
Too much of the writing in Weather is like this. Lizzie has a brother, Henry, a recovering drug addict who hastily marries and has a child with a New Age control freak named Catherine. “The baby is here!” Lizzie tells us in a wedge of prose that wouldn’t seem out of place on a lifestyle blog. “She arrived last night at 3:04 AM. Her name is Iris and everybody thinks it’s a good name.” Well, nice to know they’re all on the same page! Elsewhere the narrative can sound like the voiceover from a lost Terrence Malick film: “It still comes back to me sometimes, the way the light came through those windows. The dust had a presence. At least if you stared at it long enough, it did.” The careless repetition (“comes,” “came”) is hardly damning in itself, but it’s indicative of a more pervasive negligence.
The larger rhythms of the book soon grow labored and monotonous. Whenever we encounter an earnest or unsettling idea, as when Lizzie takes a meditation class in which the participants repeat the mantra, “Breathing in, I know I will have to let go of everything and everyone I love. Breathing out, I know there is no way to bring them along,” we can be fairly sure a mood-lightening wisecrack is never far away—in this case, “Aw, c’mon, man. Everything and everyone I love? Is there one for beginners maybe?” Worse, the snatches of obscure, beguiling knowledge that in Dept. of Speculation had the power to catch us off guard and reconfigure the meaning of the surrounding text have come to feel routine, part of the grammar of a new convention.
Where Weather really comes up short is in its portrayal of human beings and their “enmeshment” in a social web (to use a term favored by the novel). “You seem to identify down, not up,” Lizzie’s meditation instructor observes in the opening pages, and the book, to be sure, is teeming with beleaguered minor characters, the casualties of economic development. There is Mr. Jimmy, the proprietor of an old-fashioned car service being put out of business by Uber and Lyft. There is Mrs. Kovinski, the elderly, Trump-supporting super of Lizzie’s apartment building. There is the owner of a hardware store on Flatbush Avenue whose complaints about the influx of new residents (“They don’t care about service. They don’t care about expertise. And their understanding of inventory is unrealistic”) clearly echo Lizzie’s anxieties about the younger generation and the fate of her own increasingly precarious trade.
Watching all these characters appear (there are many more besides) is a bit like attending a wedding reception in a studio apartment: you wonder how everyone is going to fit. The real problem turns out to be somewhat different. Overrun by guests, Offill doesn’t have time to attend to anyone sufficiently, and so we are left with a din of indistinct voices. Like the tech guy Lizzie encounters at the foundation dinner, the other minor characters are little more than vague annoyances. Mrs. Kovinski, the super, tells her how she came to use a cane after slipping and falling: “And tells me and tells me.” Lizzie’s new sister-in-law, Catherine, warns her against using antibacterial soap “because lalalalalalalalala.” Even the dashing war reporter whom Lizzie flirts with at a neighborhood bar while Ben is on a road trip with their son comes straight out of central casting. “One of the things I like about Will is that he doesn’t seem to mind if I blather on about zazen,” she tells us. (But of course: it is only when other people blather on that troubles arise.) “I can tell he’s firmly in the school of whatever gets you through the night. I wonder sometimes what he’s doing here. ‘Just passing through,’ he says. Right, right, ramble on, sing your song, that kind of thing probably.”
The passage raises a useful question, if only inadvertently: What is he doing here? What are all of these hazy bit parts doing in the book? The solidarity that narrator and novelist alike profess to feel with other people, it slowly dawns on you, is only paper-thin. Their real function is to serve as fodder for Lizzie’s projections and observational comedy. The same could almost be said of the climate emergency itself, which looms over the book like a smoking Vesuvius. Anyone who has considered the nightmare of climate change for any time at all will be familiar with the exponential dread it inspires in Lizzie, and Offill can’t be faulted for endowing her protagonist with humanly recognizable emotions. What’s disappointing is her failure to go beyond the well-worn repertoire of affective responses to the environmental crisis, not simply to worry but to use her novel to actually think about it.
Realism may be a giant worth tilting at, but as a book like Weather suggests, narrative longueurs are hardly a peril unique to the Balzacs of the world. Nor is formal daring any guarantee against commonplace perceptions. As it happens, writers working within the supposedly staid lineage of nineteenth-century amplitude (Ian McEwan in Solar, say, or Richard Powers in The Overstory) have tended to give a stranger, more intellectually satisfying account of climate change and the struggle to address it. Theoretical allegiance will tell you only so much; the real difference is between the novelist who listens and the novelist who merely waits to speak.