Imagining Disaster

Illustration for article titled Imagining Disaster
Image: Knopf

“Everyone I know is trying to sleep less,” says the narrator of Jenny Offill’s new book Weather. “Insomnia as a badge of honor. Proof that you are paying attention.” Attention is at the heart of Offill’s latest novel composed of fragmented, epigrammatic writing, but it is often presented in a conflicted, anxious form.


Offill’s protagonist Lizzie works as a librarian and lives with her husband, young son Eli, and dog. She is close to her brother, who has issues with addiction, and soothes her retired mother over the phone. Lizzie worries that when she has a pain in her knee it might be cancer; her child worries about being left alone at school. Early on in the book, Lizzie receives a newsletter from her son’s old preschool which lists the fears of the children that attend it: “Darkness doesn’t make the cut. Blood, sharks, and loneliness are 8, 9, and 10.” Lizzie’s fears are a little more abstruse: “My #1 fear is acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.” As she takes on work for her friend and mentor Sylvia, answering the emails sent in by listeners to Sylvia’s podcast Hell or High Water, a show that seems to be about the end-times, she starts to hear from worried and anxious people. Lizzie’s fear about the future starts to look different, and she begins to frequent prepper websites, which offer tips on how to prepare for the waves of catastrophes that will befall the warming world. People with bunkers and stockpiled canned goods used to look paranoid; now it seems, at least to Lizzie, that they might have the right idea.

The book is composed of several short paragraphs, made up of jokes, advice, anecdotes, quotes, questions, and answers. Though it is written from the first-person perspective, Weather is curiously choral in places, borrowing quotes from speeches, poems and elsewhere. Like Offill’s previous novel, 2014’s enormously successful Dept. of Speculation, there is something spare here, suggesting that much has been whittled away. These fragments also give a sense of the way that we receive information, and how we might experience fleeting moments of panic or doom. It’s hard to join each section together to suggest a fluid narrative; just as we might have absorbed one idea, the novel skips ahead to another. This peppering of information replicates the uniquely piecemeal way we receive news. What might be described as a kind of apathy in the face of the enormity of climate change, may even turn to irritation or dismissal: “Environmentalists are so dreary,” says Lizzie at one point. Do we persevere with reading and learning about the various crises of climate change, or do we throw our hands up in the air in resignation?

Offill admits, in an interview with The Guardian, that her research for Weather was born out of her lack of interest in the subject. This struggle to come to terms with the issue is present in the novel, through the dominant questions it poses: What does it mean to familiarize yourself with knowledge that makes you worried, anxious, and scared? Are there limits to what we can handle? In recent months, headlines have been dominated by news of a deadly pandemic and storms and wildfires from around the world, but the responses by some politicians and public figures often seem superficial and worryingly simplistic, if not entirely dismissive. At the UN Climate Change Conference in February 2020, Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to commit to a net-zero carbon emission for the United Kingdom by 2050 and pledged around $136 billion to tackle climate change, but he heads a party that has consistently cut funding for alternative energy sources, as well as giving tax breaks to large polluting companies. Even multi-billionaires are getting on board, with Jeff Bezos donating $10 billion to “climate change causes” while simultaneously utilizing punitive and exploitative employment practices for over half a million employees. Donald Trump’s position on climate change is difficult to ascertain, ranging from him decrying it as a Chinese conspiracy, to describing it, in more recent times, as a “serious” subject that is “important” to him. How do we situate ourselves amongst these wildly different approaches and positions?

Though there are those who remain skeptical, most obviously for politically expedient reasons, the conversation has changed dramatically in recent years. The climate strikes of September 2019, which saw tens of thousands of students march in over 1,000 locations across the United States, and many hundreds of thousands across the world, indicate a profound shift in particularly the younger generation. But these actions are not without their emotional strain, and can provoke a concerted and undirected form of anxiety, and a feeling of the overwhelming enormity of the task ahead. We maybe feel our smallness in these moments more than in any other moment of our lives, and feeling small and insignificant does not galvanize action. We might think this feeling of our smallness in the face of the complexity of the world is not new: the dominant Western fear in the second half of the 20th century was the imminent threat of a nuclear bomb. But though we may want to read these as similar fears, climate change anxiety is different, because we know that while wars end, extreme natural disasters are and will continue to happen.

Offill’s book gives a sense of that smallness, and how we measure our lives against the scale of disaster, in which an end is hard to fathom. But Weather contrasts these very specific contemporary fears with various rituals, religious stories, and mysticisms from different time periods and religions, giving a sense that existential fear, not only about death, but also the meaning of life is an enduring aspect of human experience. In this book, however, Offill looks to consider the political contexts of that experience, to see the way that global disasters have uneven consequences.


She is not the only writer who has looked beyond the immediate horrors of climate change to what lies behind it; Don DeLillo was thinking of this kind of fear in his 1985 novel, White Noise. Though the dominant concern of this novel is a chemical spill, which is named euphemistically the “airborne toxic event,” his writing is also deeply concerned with the intersection between different forms of political struggle. At one point the protagonist, Jack Gladney, says to his wife “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas… I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those tv floods?” In many ways, Offill’s book seems to be a contemporary response to his, in its representation of a white middle-class family wading through a wealth of terrifying information and news. But the timing of the book is also of central importance, set in 2016, leading up to the presidential election.

Here, in this contested moment in America, Offill sets the anxieties of her protagonists among many wider issues. Part of the problem with discussions about climate change is that it can focus on worries about death, instead of wider injustices and catastrophes in places far from where we live. Offill gives a sense of how this happens, and how this anxiety is often very insular and self-involved, limited to oneself and one’s family. While accompanying Sylvia on her speaking tour, Offill’s protagonist notes that “people are really sick of being lectured to about the glaciers… ‘Listen, I’ve heard all about that,’ says this red-faced man. ‘But what’s going to happen to the American weather?’” Climate change is fine as long as it’s happening elsewhere.


Part of the problem of imagining these catastrophes is our inability to imagine it happening to us. Climate change, particularly to readers in areas that do not seem to be immediately affected by it, is difficult to actually see. Some of this problem may stem from the ways in which we read and hear about it: through newspapers, TV, and the radio, safely distanced from us. Writer Amitav Ghosh’s work The Great Derangement dwells upon the problem of the imaginative capacity of the novel and suggests that there has been a dearth of fiction which adequately represents climate change. Ghosh notes that “when novelists do choose to write about climate change it is almost always outside fiction.” This might come down to a cultural assumption that novels are somehow not as serious as their nonfiction counterparts: novels show, essays tell. It might also be a question of how reading audiences see the nonfiction author versus the fiction one, that readers view the nonfiction author as having an intellectual authority that the novelist does not, and that the novel is presumed to be too inward-looking, solely focussed on one life.

The lack of representation that Ghosh laments is more specifically about the representation of politics in fiction in general. After the election of Trump, Offill’s Lizzie hears of a grocery store that placed a sign on the window that reads “No politics, please.” Sectioning off of areas of life where life can and cannot be political is an important dimension to this novel, and one that speaks to the concerns of climate change fiction. In Offill’s book, the more nebulous worries of Lizzie are presented in contrast to issues like racism, addiction, homelessness, poor mental health. At one point, Lizzie sees a colleague, an adjunct professor, and thinks, “He looks pale. I worry he is selling his plasma again,” a reference to the low wages and precarity of early career academics. Her retired mother, who lives on her pension, begins to buy socks for the ever-increasing number of homelessness she sees around her. Though the sparse prose of Offill’s work crafts a fractured narrative, Lizzie’s world is one where climate change cannot be extricated from rapacious capitalism. In this iteration, there is no singular climate change fiction, only fiction trying to give new coherence to the fractures we see around us.


Weather allows for these multiple fractures to come to the fore, exposing that there is no one way to come to grips with the complexities of climate change. In the current pandemic, this book takes on another dimension, and many of Lizzie’s worries about preparing for the end of the world seem strangely prescient. Thinking about the novel in the current strange shape of our lives, what underscores both climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are ideas of individual control.

At one point, Lizzie teases her brother for liking films in which “there is always some great disaster about to happen and only one unlikely person who can stop it,” but this search for a hero, and the promise of agency in the face of the enormous scale of these events, are hardly surprising desires. Offill’s novel shows the interconnectedness between our fears, and that living individualized, atomized lives only compounds them. Through the many moments of connection in the novel, both moments of kindness between her various characters and the larger thematic connections she explores, Offill does not present a model for change, but an attempt to make us feel less alone.


Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a writer, researcher and teacher based in London. She has a PhD in the work of Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee from the University of Sussex. Her work can be seen in Hotel, The London Magazine, Times Literary Supplement, Irish Times, The White Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. She wrote an entry for the Dictionary of Literary Biography on DeLillo and is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury in 2018.