In his essay “Inside the Whale,” George Orwell, writing about Henry Miller and his novel Tropic of Cancer, says, “As a rule, writers who do not wish to identify themselves with the historical process at the moment either ignore it or fight against it. If they can ignore it, they are probably fools. If they can understand it well enough to want to fight against it, they probably have enough vision to realize that they cannot win.” Orwell is not suggesting we lay down and face the coming catastrophe. Nor is he suggesting that novel writers stay out of politics necessarily. Ever since George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, one of the favourite pastimes of the left has been to invoke the spectre of Hitler. This is mostly misguided hysteria, but let us accept that there may be certain parallels to the year 2020 and the 1930s. In that case, Orwell is clear.
On the whole the literary history of the thirties seems to justify the opinion that a writer does well to keep out of politics… Literature as we know it is an individual thing, demanding mental honesty… and this is even truer of prose than of verse. The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature… The novel is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual. No decade in the past hundred and fifty years has been so barren of imaginative prose as the nineteen-thirties. There have been good poems, good sociological works, brilliant pamphlets, but practically no fiction of any value at all. From 1933 onwards the mental climate was increasingly against it. Anyone sensitive enough to be touched by the zeitgeist was also involved in politics. Not everyone, of course, was definitely in the political racket, but practically everyone was on its periphery and more or less mixed up in propaganda campaigns and squalid controversies… It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.
While it is true that in the year 2020 Western writers and thinkers maintain their autonomy and freedom of mind, those minds remain overwhelmed. In our present climate of division and fear, as in Orwell’s time, it certainly feels “inconceivable that good novels [could] be written” in our time, too. But that has not happened, for the most part—up to a point. There have been good novels written. It has been in the last decade or so that there has been a trend away from non-political fiction and toward didacticism.
Which brings me to Jenny Offill’s newest book, Weather. Anything with such a title in the year 2020 ought to raise a red flag and practically comes with a built-in unspoken disclaimer—WARNING: POLITICAL TRACT AHEAD—and, sure enough, it’s not long before we are in the morass. One of the things that made Offill’s previous book, Dept. of Speculation, so enjoyable was its relative lack of politics. Belonging to the burgeoning class of novels about upper middle-class Americans and their struggles to maintain a sense of individuality in the collective crush of children, careers, spouses, etc., Dept. of Speculation nonetheless maintained an air of accessibility about it. Gone Girl may have had more zing, but that took things a bit too far. And there’s just something so sanctimonious about Elizabeth Gilbert. But Jenny Offill! We need her, this person who understands the madness we’ve created. Sure, I’ll never have the kind of life these characters have, but if Offill doesn’t quite get me, she gets it.
Offill may in fact “get it,” but for all the wistful intensity and freshness Dept. of Speculation offered, Weather falls short. The Rothian self-absorption present in Dept. of Speculation returns in Weather, but there is something grating and off-key about it in the new book. It’s a legitimate cry of despair from an over-educated, over-worked married liberal mother, but its tone is too strident. There is too much whining, and the novel is also too self-consciously artistic. In Dept. of Speculation the main character was simply known as “the wife,” and something similar is at work in Weather. We have character names—Lizzy, Henry, Ben, Will, Sylvia—but nobody has a last name, and we also have people referenced by their job or other characteristics, like a coffee-shop barista might employ. It’s not “two-shot mocha lite man” but we do have “this one” and “this man” and “this woman” and “this person.” The book is carved up into a combination of anecdotes and philosophical wanderings, none of which are longer than three sentences, if that. Several passages are italicised, but it’s not always clear what the italics mean, and while it’s not critical we know, it’s distracting. The overall feel of the novel is that of reading someone’s Twitter feed, only written better and with no spelling errors. Even if this is intentional, Offill has overestimated the Twitter’s appeal to her intended audience.
There are plenty of sharp observations, for Offill is nothing if not a shrewd observer of modernity. Lizzie, our narrator, relates humorous stories about people being handed “privilege cards” (“your privilege is showing”), power-hungry mothers on the playground armed with bullhorns, “enmeshment questionnaires,” “doomsteds” to ride out the end times, and some well-timed jokes, like the young woman suffering from FOMO and feeling “out of step” because her phone cost her a few seconds—literally, a few seconds due to its “slowness.” There is a piercing discussion of a newly-50-year old woman and her “blurriness.”
One passage feels in particular as though it comes from bearing witness, whether Offill’s own experience or, a la Rachel Cusk, someone she knows. When Ben takes their son on a trip, Lizzie ends up connecting with a man named Will. They stop short of having any physical contact, but in Lizzie’s mind it was an affair (they go on what she describes as a “cheat walk,” for instance). At one point Will asks Lizzie “What’s keeping you here?”
Please, I think, but no, I can’t even look at him. All these people. I have so many people, you wouldn’t believe it.
It is a beautiful, honest moment, one that will surely resonate with many a happily married person, let alone an unhappily married one. Sometimes the business of raising a family is so intense the desire to run is not only seen as a difficult choice but also the only choice. But we all have “so many people” we turn away from the quick and easy path and right back to the family.
Possibly the most powerful arrow of the book is a scene of Lizzie at dinner with her friend Sylvia (and her eventual side-gig employer) and people from Silicon Valley. Lizzie and Sylvia wind up separated, and Lizzie ends up next to a technocrat straight out of central casting. It’s his kind who will lead us into a better future, when “there won’t be any more talk of what has been lost, only of what has been gained.” What will be gained, exactly?
He tells me that smart houses are coming, that 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. He asked me what my favourite platform was. I explain that I don’t use any of them because they make me feel too squirrely. He looks at me and I can see him calculating all the ways I am trying to prevent the future. ‘Well, good luck with that, I guess,’ he says.
If Offill had stuck to this kind of script—if she had kept with garden-variety middle-aged angst—the novel would have worked better, even if it wouldn’t have seemed all that different than Dept. of Speculation. Instead she subverts the good moments with too much middle-class whining.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t seem to stop making bad decisions. The weird thing is that they don’t sneak up on me. I can see them coming.
The first time Lizzie sees Will it’s on a bus, and there’s no indication (though if I was thinking more cheerfully I might have seen it coming) she will eventually reach the point she does with him.
I sit across from a hot guy in a green coat who looks as if he’s trying to place me. When I was younger, I sometimes knew why a man was staring at me, but these days it’s often no more than a lapse in memory.
There’s some poignancy about Lizzie’s own impending “blurriness,” but is objectification something a woman in 2020 should aspire to? Later, when Lizzie falls down the rabbit hole of survivalist Web sites, her husband notices.
Ben comes into the living room, sees what I’m doing, and walks away. I follow him into our room. “You’re weary of me, aren’t you?” I say, and he says in the weariest voice imaginable, “No, I’m not. I just need to go to bed.”
There are echoes of Dept. of Speculation in that latter passage. When “the wife” asks her husband why he had his affair, he doesn’t say it was because the woman was more attractive, or smarter, or better in bed. She was, simply, “easier.” Similar to what happens with the narrator in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble, what keeps Lizzie above water more than anything is the level-headedness of a man, her husband Ben.
But even those moments of middle-class moaning are doable, if not for the fatal flaw in the book: the politics, of both Trump and the climate crisis. Some of this isn’t Offill’s fault but ours, the readers. Her axe had announced its intention to grind, and yet, because of the excellence of Dept. of Speculation, there was hope Offill wouldn’t slip into the didactic and pump up the fear.
The reality, however, is what Orwell said: “Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.” And while we don’t know if Offill is as afraid of the coming catastrophe(s) as Lizzie and her husband are (but more so Lizzie), there is too much fear in the book, and not merely the environment’s impending collapse. After the 2016 election, Ben urges Lizzie to “Get everything done now” (like going to the dentist), because there’s a chance one or both of them will lose their jobs. Was the Obama administration so perfect that nobody lost a job? The couple explore, however ineffectually, moving to Israel or to Canada. Lizzie receives advice on what to do for her boy, Eli, to prepare him for the Grim Times Ahead. Her friend Sylvia tells her it would be best if Eli could find a useful vocation and didn’t have children. A menacing undertone of fear pervades the entire novel, from a mounting sense of dread—which should not be confused with suspense—that Henry, Lizzie’s depressed, drug-addicted/recovering drug addict/drug-addicted/recovered drug addict brother, will take his own life, and the sense that we actually did not survive the last four years, and the next paragraph or sentence or word will confirm that we are in fact dead and/or living in a terrifying Matrix not starring Keanu Reeves but one designed by him. In the end Lizzie arrives at a humble place of acceptance of her life and the future life of her son. It’s not quite despair or even a quiet despair, but it’s not exactly optimistic, either. It’s an ending Henry James or Edith Wharton might have written if they were alive in 2020.
So where, then, does Offill fall in the spectrum Orwell describes above? She does not ignore the historical process, but does she want to fight and does she have enough vision to realise she cannot win? Does she advocate #resistance or #acceptance? It is not entirely clear. What is clear is that this book is an orthodox one—the orthodoxy of fear and our responses to it. (Another orthodoxy is the one from the left, but that is for another time.) A comparison to Henry Miller and Orwell’s commentary of Tropic of Cancer is a compelling one, even as the three writers (including Offill) and their topics are so disparate.
Where Miller’s work is symptomatically important is in its avoidance of any of these attitudes. He is neither pushing the world-process forward nor trying to drag it back, but on the other hand he is by no means ignoring it. I should say that he believes in the impending ruin of Western Civilization much more firmly than the majority of ‘revolutionary’ writers; only he does not feel called upon to do anything about it. He is fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flames.
What Miller offers in response to a crisis, if not purely hedonistic in its approach, hews toward what Orwell calls an attitude of irresponsibility. “Miller replied in terms of extreme pacifism, an individual refusal to fight, with no apparent wish to convert others to the same opinion—practically, in fact, a declaration of irresponsibility.” But is this defensible? What of writing a book in the year 2020 like Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a picaresque series of sexual adventures set after World War I but at a time when the clouds had long since coalesced into the next coming nightmare? Or do we need more books like Offill’s, chronicles of the difficulties of thinking people to get thru the days of Trump and the coming calamities? Offill offers no solutions, and since Miller barely alludes to the problems he has nothing to say either. Surprisingly for a person who loathed pacifism as much as Orwell, he approves of Miller’s approach.
At this date it hardly even needs a war to bring home to us the disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all decent people. It is for this reason that I think that the passive, non-co-operative attitude implied in Henry Miller’s work is justified. No sermons, merely the subjective truth. And along those lines, apparently, it is still possible for a good novel to be written. Not necessarily an edifying novel, but a novel worth reading and likely to be remembered after it is read.
The sermonising of a particular subjective truth—that of a middle-class liberal New Yorker—is on full display in Weather. While Offill spins beautiful sentences, it is not clear if she or Weather will be remembered. It’s worth noting that Orwell wrote about the “disintegration of our society and the increasing helplessness of all decent people” in 1940. Eighty years later his words echo as if they were just written, as we are still talking about our demise, and Orwell was hardly advancing a new theory of civilisation. It could perhaps us give us hope that, despite the advent of The Bomb, we are here to discuss books and raise children or not raise children. What Weather and other books written in the last ten years do is to attempt to sell this self-important sense that we are living in the “most important era in history.” It’s easy to fall into this trap, since we are bombarded on all sides by information, information, information. Much of this is our own doing, so we can’t complain too much. We have put ourselves “outside the whale,” as Orwell might have said it. Henry Miller, however, was inside the whale and loving it.
For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cosy, homelike thought. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens. A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo. Even the whale’s own movements would probably be imperceptible to you. He might be wallowing among the surface waves or shooting down into the blackness of the middle seas (a mile deep, according to Herman Melville), but you would never notice the difference. Short of being dead, it is the final, unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility. There is no question that Miller himself is inside the whale. Only he feels no impulse to alter or control the process that he is undergoing. He has performed the essential Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting. It will be seen what this amounts to. It is a species of quietism, implying either complete unbelief or else a degree of belief amounting to mysticism.
What is the view from outside the whale? It’s the view Offill and too many other writers have. It’s the view from the The New York Times or NPR or some similar outlet. It turns out Wordsworth was ahead of his time. The world really is too much with us.
Near the middle of Weather Lizzy says, “One thing that’s becoming clearer: people are really sick of being lectured to about the glaciers.” To that we could add: people are sick of hearing about Trump. We are sick about hearing stories of mental illness and drug abuse. We are sick of stories about middle-aged angst, the female or male version. We are sick of hearing about upper middle-class, uber-educated New Yorkers kvetch about their careers, children, and the like. The #metoo movement has spawned its own literary life in fiction, and while saying we are sick of it might seem like a defense of the many monsters the movement has exposed, that is not the case at all. The point isn’t to condone Trumpism or Weinsteinism or to minimise the reality of the climate emergency, but to protest their use as centerpieces of a novel.