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On Survival and Jenny Offill's Weather

There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.

Banana slugs are hermaphrodites who mate up to three times a day.

Democritus wrote seventy books. Only fragments survive.

Jenny Offill's book Weather is a near-constant outpouring of these moments: unrelated facts, brief email exchanges, even jokes. Weather also opens the door on Lizzie's life with her husband, Ben, their son, Eli, and her recovering addict brother, Henry. She's a librarian, he's in tech, Henry writes greeting card poems. They live in the city. Their names and occupations are there, of course, but they can feel somehow irrelevant. They exist between and around and perhaps even through the fragments that make up Jenny Offill's now-signature style.

Their stories matter, of course, but it is the fragments that survive.

As on 9/11 when paper scraps swirled in the air, what survives after the big event are the fragments of institutional daily operations, the turned down corner of the page, the Target receipt. It is merely ephemera; it is what remains.

Could the fragments be the whole? How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, is it not? In fact, the fragments are the weather. That it drizzled a little this afternoon but was much warmer this morning than expected. The way I can't seem to remember if we've always had new grass in November, or if that was just this year. The different ways spring starts to make itself known in different parts of the world. These moments are that old postcard tucked in your book when you got too tired to keep reading. You could see it every day and never really pay attention.

The weather is always changing. The climate, on the other hand, is supposed to be the water in our fishbowl. We're not supposed to even know what it is, but these days, it can feel like it's sloshing so violently we might soon be thrown over the edge. Lizzie feels this uncertainty, and like most of us, she swings between the weather and the climate - from the daily urgencies of school pick-up and work emails to the question of where might be the safest place to move when New York (its weather? its climate?) becomes unlivable. Offill doesn't privilege the existential threat, however; the ephemera is just as critical. Lizzie, worried about her self-destructive brother, stays on the phone trying anything to get him "to commit to the next day, the next hour, the next minute even." The addict and the planet might ultimately be doomed, but we still cling to the fragments that will survive.

So, maybe the water is agitated, and maybe despite (or because of) that, our job is to pay attention. To tell ourselves This is Water and finger the gum wrapper still in the pocket of last season's jacket and to show up and do what we can, each of us trying for the next day, the next hour, the next minute even.


Weather is one of 16 longlisted titles being considered for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. For the full list, click here. The shortlist of 6 will be announced on April 22. The prize is announced on June 3. For other reviewed titles on the longlist, see below:


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