Emotional truth is the currency of fiction. Jenny Offill’s last novel, Dept of Speculation, was a wry, caustic, funny book about motherhood and marriage written in a series of sharp, intimate, obliquely connected paragraphs. These paragraphs didn’t tell a story as such, but rather they worked upon the reader in an accretive and insidious fashion, building up a complex three-dimensional picture of the unnamed narrator’s existence, caught between her maternal instincts and her dreams of being an “art monster”. Dept of Speculation played with the reader’s expectations of the form, managing to be at once coyly withholding and painfully honest, overtly fictional but also gesturing towards the conventions of autobiography.
Weather, Offill’s third novel, at first feels on familiar ground, telling the tale of Lizzie Benson, a mother and librarian in an unnamed New York borough who “used to have plans! Biggish ones, medium at least.” Lizzie attends meditation classes with a woman called Margot, although mostly “the people who take this meditation class just want to know if they should be vegetarians or, if they already are, how to convert others”. Lizzie’s husband, Ben, did a classics degree but now designs educational computer games; her son, Eli, asks her difficult questions and at the school gates she can’t stop thinking about “how big this school is or how small he is”. Her brother, Henry, is in and out of Narcotics Anonymous, in a relationship with Catherine, “a weird mix of hard-edged and hippie-minded”.
Lizzie is contacted by a former university professor, Sylvia, who “used to check in on me sometimes to see if I was still squandering my promise”. Sylvia has become a kind of celebrity through a podcast called Hell and High Water and is now on a “never-ending speaking tour”. She plans to “rewild half the earth” and is supported by Silicon Valley billionaires who want to “de-extinct” mammoths. Sylvia enlists Lizzie as a confidante, and they go on a series of journeys together – “Sylvia always wants to go see things, some nearby, some far away. The requirement is that they are disappearing faster than expected. The going, going, gone trips, I call them.” Sylvia pays Lizzie to answer the emails she gets from the wild preppers who follow her and ask things like: “What is surveillance capitalism? How can we save the bees? What is the internet of things? When will humans go extinct?”
Her sentences resonate powerfully, drawing you in with their humour before sideswiping you with their veracity
These apocalyptic correspondents seem to summon forth an analogous fear in Lizzie. She starts planning her own “doomstead”, having heard that the tech billionaires are buying up land in New Zealand. She considers moving there, but is worried that “the government has restrictions about what you can name your kid. Sex Fruit and Fat Boy are forbidden. Violence and Number 16 Bus Shelter are okay.” The weather of the title is partly the climate crisis: “According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures by 2047.”
The title also refers to the prevailing atmosphere in the US, particularly after the election of Trump, which happens around halfway through the book. “Your people have finally fallen into history,” an Iranian friend tells her. Sylvia had predicted it: “In chaotic times, people long for a strongman, she said. But I didn’t believe her. Hardly anyone did.” Lizzie asks Will, a war reporter with whom she’s contemplating having an affair, whether the US feels like a country at war. “He says it feels the way it does just before it starts. It’s a weird thing, but you learn to pick up on it. Even while everybody’s convincing themselves it’s going to be okay, it’s there in the air somehow. The whole thing is more physical than mental, he tells me.”
As with her previous novel, the paragraphs in Weather are each a kind of koan, some short, some long, all of them containing a piece of central, organising wisdom. Penelope Fitzgerald was the queen of the innocuously devastating aphorism; Offill has inherited her crown. Again and again her sentences resonate powerfully, drawing you in with their humour before sideswiping you with their veracity. At one point Lizzie tells us that she’s “always had an obsession with lost books, all the ones half written or recovered in pieces”. She doesn’t say why, but I think it’s because these “half-written” books require the participation of the reader to complete their story. In Weather, we construct a whole from the pieces Offill gives us, and find that we hold in our hands a truly remarkable novel, perhaps the most powerful portrait of Trump’s America yet.
• Weather by Jenny Offill is published by Granta (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15