Tag Archives: Amercan contemporary fiction

Weather by Jenny Offill: A novel for our times

Cover imageIf you’re a reader who prefers a neat plot within a linear, well-defined narrative best steer clear of Jenny Offill’s new novel. If, like me, you’re a fan of Dept. of Speculation and have been hoping for a little while to see Offill’s name pop up in the publishing schedules, you’re in for a treat. Set against the backdrop of Trump’s America and the ever more urgent climate crisis, Weather follows Lizzie as she tries to take care of everyone while disappearing down an apocalyptic wormhole, responding to the emails of listeners to the podcast, Hell and High Water.

Lizzie works as a librarian, answering the many and various questions of its members, watching the comings and goings of the meditation class which she decides to join and fretting about her recovering drug addict brother, Henry, her husband Ben and their son, Eli. When Sylvia offers her work answering emails to her environmental podcast, Lizzie accepts, diligently researching and answering the concerns of both doomsday and evangelical listeners attracted by its name. Lizzie’s domestic worries continue to multiply: dodging the mother she offended at Eli’s old school, wondering if they’ll ever rid themselves of mice without upsetting Eli, taking in Henry when his marriage founders and toying with the idea of a fling, all while researching a ‘doomsted’ plan. By the end of this sharp, witty novella, the mice are still in situ, Henry has been six months clean and Lizzie has finally gone to the dentist but the planet, of course, is still warming.

Can pets be saved in Christ and go to heaven? If not, what will happen to them?

Offill delivers Weather in bite-sized chunks, paragraphs of whatever is preoccupying Lizzie, punctuating her narrative with questions from podcast listeners, anxious as to what they might do to prepare, where they might be safest, how to feed themselves and their families. Lizzie spends her time trying to solve everyone else’s problems with little emotional energy left over for Ben, Eli or herself. There can be no resolution to her many concerns, domestic or global. It’s impossible to save everyone – even Sylvia seems to have given up:

Of course, the world continues to end,” Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden

Weather approaches the crisis facing our planet with wit and panache, a constant ever darkening backdrop to Lizzie’s everyday dilemmas. It’s a triumph: fragmented, non-linear and discursive, it really shouldn’t work yet it does so beautifully.

Granta Books: London 2020 9781783784769 224 pages Hardback

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman: The Big Chill reprised

Cover imageThe Gunners is built around a structure that rarely fails to attract me: a group of people, once friends as children or young adults, are brought together by an event which affects them all. Weddings and funerals are a favourite trigger for this kind of reunion and in the case of Rebecca Kauffman’s novel it’s a funeral just as the friends enter their thirties. The five remaining members of the group that dubbed themselves the Gunners are brought together by the suicide of the sixth who none of them had heard from since she left the group aged sixteen with no explanation.

Mikey is the only one of the five who stayed close to their Ohio childhood home town. Jimmy has long since moved into finance making enough money to have a palatial summer home nearby to which he’s invited the other four for a lavishly catered meal. Sam has flown in from Georgia and appears to have taken to religion; Alice arrives with her girlfriend, as loud and tactless as ever while Lynn and her partner make up the party, both musicians now running an AA group. These five who have been friends since they were six years old are only loosely in touch, having drifted apart after Sally’s unexplained departure. There’s a great deal of catching up to do but overarching it all are two questions: why did Sally not only desert the Gunners but determinedly avoid contact with Mikey, once her best friend, and why did she take her own life.

If you’re of a certain age you may well have seen The Big Chill which has one of the best opening sequences I’ve seen, complete with the Marvin Gaye’s sublime ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ playing over it. Shortly after starting The Gunners, I was struck by what a good film it would make, then I realised it had already been made. This is not to criticise the novel which I thoroughly enjoyed. Kauffman’s charactericisation is strong, the flitting back and forth between childhood memories to adult reunions deftly developing each of them. Secrets are revealed, and if the two big questions are not entirely answered it doesn’t detract from the novel merely reflecting what might well happen in real life. This is a satisfying, often poignant read. There’s not a huge amount of bite to it but once I’d settled into The Big Chill vibe I was more than happy to enjoy the ride.