21st century writing | 21st century approaches

The Centrality of the Trivial

The Centrality of the Trivial

Jul 13, 2020

Reading Jenny Offill’s Weather

by Clare Fisher (University of Leeds)

Introduction

At the centre of our collective inability to apprehend the climate crisis is our failure to imagine ourselves as anything other than the centre of, well, everything. The Anthropocene, as noted by Daniel Cordel and Diletta de Cristofaro in their introduction to C21 Literature’s special issue on the topic, challenges us “to think beyond the human even though we inevitably cannot escape that subject position” (n.pag.). This echoes Timothy Clarke’s contention that literature’s failure to grapple with the climate crisis is a problem of narrative scale: 

As a possible global catastrophe arising from innumerable mostly trivial or innocent individual actions, including some which seem politically taboo, such as increased material prosperity, an expanding population or increased longevity, climate change does not present any one easily identifiable antagonist. Its causes are diffuse, partly unpredictable and separated from their effects by huge gaps in space and time. (2010:146)

“Very strange cloud formation somewhere in North Dakota”. Image by Len Hardy on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-ND licence

Our individualistic, anthropocentric stories create notions of cause and effect which elide the complexity of the crisis, as well as our collective responsibility for it. What we need, by contrast, argues Donna Haraway, are stories (and theories) that are just big enough to gather up the complexities and keep the edges open and greedy for surprising new and old connections” (160).  This article argues that in centring Jenny Offill’s Weather around the affects and the aesthetics of the trivial, Offill gathers up the complexities of trying to think beyond the human from within the human. Her novel, written in gnomic fragments, stages the contemporary Western subject’s centring on its own trivialities as paradoxically necessary to survival on an individual scale, yet also as threat to the survival of the planet. Reading with Sianne Ngai (2005; 2012), I posit that Offill wields ‘minor’ affects and aesthetic categories to produce a text which not only troubles the conventional expectation that a novel ought to be centred around one “easily identifiable protagonist” but exposes the extent to which such expectations further embed us in crisis. The text prises open a space of dissonance between the affective knowledge of climate change as it appears in our everyday lives (trivial, innocent, diffuse) and the intellectual knowledge that the broader situation is immense, terrifying and very serious. 

Minor, but Instrumental

Although the novel is narrated from a first person perspective, its narrator, Lizzie, is one of the last people about whom the reader learns. As a university librarian, a mother, a wife to a husband who jokingly reprimands her for being a “fake therapist” to everyone she encounters, and sister to a recovering addict, her “I” is constantly displaced by the needier “I’s” around her. The opening pages focus on the people she encounters at the library. There is “the one who is mostly enlightened. There are stages and she is in the second to last stage, she thinks” (Weather). Then there is the “doomed adjunct… He is writing about a philosopher I have never heard of. He is minor, but instrumental, he told me. Minor but instrumental!” (Weather). These characters do not serve any narrative function, they reveal little psychological depth; in introducing them before any of the novel’s more narratively consequential characters, and before telling the reader much about Lizzie herself, Offill tacitly indicates that to engage with those at the edges of our domestic lives is nevertheless central to the project of responding ethically to the climate crisis. This reading is illuminated by the work of Alexandra Kingston-Reese, who, in Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century Life, theorises “against” as a unifying structure of contemporary aesthetic experience: “As a mood that encompasses a push-pull across formal ambition, novel style, and affective experiences of art, against refers to the proximal sense of ‘to be against’ — next to, to run up against — as well as opposition — between the literary and the real, intense and weak feelings, excitement and boredom” (7). Kingston-Reese’s study focusses on art novels and how against functions to “mobilize aesthetic theory away from aesthetic norms to negative aesthetic categories better tied to contemporary living” (8). Kingston-Reese points out that whilst many of these novels gesture towards political crises, they do not engage “deeply” with their affective consequences (168). To return to Weather’s opening, the trivial functions as a mode of against — in both the proximal and the oppositional sense — in that it produces a non-hierarchical aesthetic. What distinguishes it from the art novels in Kingston-Reese’s study, however, is that it does so as a means of engaging deeply with the affective consequences of climate change, as I will discuss later in the essay. 

“Cloud formation” . Image by Carl Wycoff on Flickr under a CC BY licence.

            

First, however, I will — in the non-linear spirit of the novel — swerve sideways to the work of Sianne Ngai. In Ugly Feelings (2005), she argues that “the nature of the socio-political itself has changed in a manner that both calls forth and calls upon a new set of feelings — one less powerful than the classical political passions, though perhaps more suited, in their ambient, Bartleby-esque, but still diagnostic nature, for models of subjectivity, collectivity and agency not entirely foreseen by past theorists of the commonwealth” (5). Through reading the work of Larson, Beckett, Melville and others, Ngai demonstrates how such “minor” affects have the potential, when deployed skilfully, to probe the affectively and aesthetically ambiguous spaces of ongoingness and compromised agency that increasingly mark contemporary life, and which the critical focus on the sudden, the dramatic, or ‘major’ feelings, tends to ignore. Her more recent work on aesthetic categories turns on a similar argument:

Because of a contradictory mixture of affects underscoring their politically ambivalent nature — for the zany, fun and unfun; for the interesting, interest and boredom; and for the cute, tenderness and aggression — we might say that the cute, interesting, and zany have a certain “mereness” at their cores. Yet this triviality is not itself trivial; it explains why these aesthetic categories are suited for helping us think more deeply about the shifting meanings of the aesthetic, art, and even culture in our time. (2010:951)

Ambivalence, mereness, triviality, contradiction: for Ngai, the “core”, or centre, of contemporary aesthetic experience is its troubling absence: the suspicion, more felt than thought, and tacitly implied by these descriptors, that it ought to be stiller, bigger, more solid, or perhaps merely a more whose nature is yet to (or cannot) be understood. Minor aesthetic categories and affects, she implies, have the capability to show us how this absence operates. With this reading in mind, I will now go on to discuss how Offill marshals the trivial to illuminate what is affectively and aesthetically present in the absences of our understanding of the climate crisis. 

What the Edges Might Hold 

Much like Offill’s critically acclaimed second novel, Dept. of Speculation (2014), Weather is animated less by the unravelling of narrative cause and effect than by the gradual accretion of feeling and thought patterns. In an interview with the Guardian, Offill said that the novel grew out of her “interest” in why she was not more interested in the climate crisis, the implication being that the position it occupied in her mind was so peripheral, she could only approach it through the absence of an aesthetic category which — following Ngai’s formulation — denotes a certain absence in itself. In another interview with the Paris Review, she explains how the writing process entailed an interrogation of the absence, not only of cognitive interest, but of “major” feelings around the topic: “the process of writing Weather was about trying to move from thinking about what is happening to feeling the immensity and sadness of it.” The novel charts this “trying” in poetic, aphoristic fragments, or what Leslie Jamison, reviewing the novel in the New York Times, describes as “mundane intensities”. Here is one example: 

Sometimes I like to ask my boss about little patterns I notice at the library. She has worked here for twenty years. She sees everyone and everything. So how come three different people came in today and wanted to put up flyers about beekeeping? But this time Lorraine just shrugs. “Some things are in the air, they float around,” she says, and I think of leaves, of something falling and accumulating without notice. (Weather

This fragment functions as a synecdoche, of sorts, for the novel as a whole. Lizzie begins her quest to both think and feel the realities of climate change by interrogating her immediate human and non-human surroundings; when, as in this example, she finds no answers, she does not retreat into invention or despair, but looks this lack squarely in the face.Here, she describes the “mereness” that Lorraine describes: the “things” that “float around” before they are codified. In describing what is so trivial it can barely be described Lizzie is able to connect, if only at the level of metaphor, with an equally trivial detail of the natural world — the falling leaves. The trivial functions to dilate the reader’s attention towards those moments where contradictory scales rub up against one another — moments which, because they form part of Lizzie’s attempt to apprehend a much bigger question, do not feel trivial. 

“It’s cold . . . can you tell?” Image by SortofNatural on Flickr under a CC BY-NC licence.

           

 Paying attention to the absence at the centre of the personal allows Offill to connect it not only to the natural world but to the human at the broader historical scale. Later in the novel Lizzie reports on a conversation with Will, her war correspondent friend: “It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air… He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.” (Weather). The text cuts between scales in such a way as to remind the Western reader that their imminent encounter with structural crisis is neither novel nor — when viewed from the  zoomed-out angle that the text’s dilation and contraction of attention permits — central. Yet, in this fragment, as in the falling leaves example above, the moment at which the boundaries of the individual human scale is transcended is also the moment at which the fragment ends. The reader’s attention is thus directed, once again, to the gaps that simultaneously connect and separate each fragment from its neighbours — a visual reminder of the creative interdependence of absence and presence within the text as a whole. The symbolic echoing between these two fragments also prizes open a gap in which the reader is able to construct loose connections between them. If the things Lizzie’s colleague claims are “floating” in the air are related to Will’s “hum,” perhaps the “falling leaves” are related to “history”. 

 Leaning into the little also permits Offill to approach the multiscalarity of the climate crisis more directly than in the examples discussed so far. Having already forbidden herself to think about how “big” her son’s school is in relation to how “small” he is (Weather), Lizzie observes: 

I had that thought again. The one with numbers in it. It bent the light. 

Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures by 2047. (Weather

By this point in the novel, Lizzie’s understanding of the climate crisis has advanced considerably, in large part due to her new job as an assistant to Sylvia, an eco-activist and author. In one of Sylvia’s podcast episodes, an ecologist uses the word “mesh” (Weather) to describe the interdependence of all lifeforms on earth. The word mesh recalls Lizzie’s emotional “enmeshment” (Weather) with her dysfunctional adult brother. In sewing this precise “little pattern”, Offill troubles the distinction between the ecological and the personal, the big and the small, the important and the trivial. When the reader stumbles across a word they have already encountered in a different context, the reader’s memory is jogged and they might even flick backwards to determine where exactly they’ve seen it before; I know I certainly did, and not only for the purposes of writing this essay, but because I genuinely wanted to slow down and see what I could not quite see the first time around. In this way, Offill uses the trivial to mobilise her novel against novelistic reading norms in which the reader must actively piece together its mystery by turning the page, not forwards, towards a decisive narrative revelation, but sideways and backwards.  

 This slow, non-linear mode of reading is a tacit mode of against the forward-focussed temporality of the Silicon Valley tech bros Lizzie later encounters. Climate change, they believe, will be solved by technology — but only once the generations who haven’t grown up with it have “finally age[d] out of the conversation. Dies, I think he means” (Weather). Yet just as Lizzie doesn’t voice her opposition to the tech bro’s future-inclined thinking, so Offill’s bigger argument is never fully voiced; instead, she holds open a space of interpretative uncertainty which forces the reader to take an active role in maintaining it. It is in this space that Offill stages the disorientation of trying to move between an intellectual and affective knowledge of climate change, allowing her, in both her rephrasing of the tech bro’s argument — “dies, I think he means” — and in her description of its entry into her domestic space in the fragment quoted above, to make it concrete: “it bent the light”. The flat, declarative tone of this latter statement is all that remains when Lizzie’s zanily performative need to understand the “numbers” wears itself out. The “it” of climate change’s more-than-human scale has rendered her domestic space absurd, illegible. In this seemingly-impossible light, the description of her son’s marker pen arrangement is not “merely” cute and trivial, the factoid about temperature changes not “merely” interesting; rather, they are both obliquely shadowed by tragedy. Sliding between the zany, the cute and the interesting in both tone and subject matter permits Offill to break down the terror of sliding between the human and the non-human scale of the crisis into fragments small enough for both writer and reader to bear. 

Offill’s gap-strewn symbolic ‘mesh’ also acts as a mode of against human-orientated value systems, simultaneously exposing them as complicit in the climate crisis and producing a mode of looking beyond them. Here is Sylvia’s speech, in which she quotes a book called Nature and Silence

There is no higher or lower, it says. Everything is equally evolved… the only reason we think humans are the height of evolution is that we have chosen to privilege certain things above other things… You could make a case that banana slugs are sexually superior to us. They are hermaphrodites who mate up to three times a day. (Weather). 

This describes the novel’s aesthetic and affective philosophy as much as it does global ecology; indeed, the novel could be read as an experiment in trying to render this ecological reality affectively real from the point of view of a single human protagonist — an experiment which produces a non-hierarchical aesthetic.  Rather than resorting to didacticism —  a danger of climate activism that Offill repeatedly registers: “people are really sick of being lectured to about the glaciers” (Weather) — Offill plucks details whose comic specificity produce a tone which oscillates between the cute, the zany and the interesting, both at the level of sentence, and in the text as a whole. This tonal oscillation acts as a mode of against whose tacit opposition to the smugly didactic enlightened on the one hand, and the forward-frenzied tech bros on the other, lures the reader, through its well-chosen comic detail — the sex lives of banana slugs — into modes of seeing and thinking that have been quietly hiding against, as in next to, these louder modes, all along. 

 Weather’s edges are, like the edges of its component fragments, perforated. The last line, “the core delusion is that I am here and you are there,” is followed by a link to the website www.obligatorynoteofhope.com. Whilst Sylvia has quit her foundation due to being exhausted with exactly this obligation — “there is no hope anymore, only witness” (Weather) — the website documents concrete examples of action both present and past. Is there or is there not hope? The book, like Lizzie, says yes and no, and maybe. The situation is hopeless but hope we must. The thread linking the “me” of the author to the “me” of the protagonist to the “you” of the reader is the attention we pay not only to each other but to the spaces where “nothing” is happening. Offill’s achievement is to train us to look at this nothing long enough for it to become something, showing, whilst never didactically telling, that if we can hold off our desire for easy answers, and sit, instead, with the fear, uncertainty and confusion of not-knowing, we will find some value. 

CITATION: Clare Fisher, “The Centrality of the Trivial: Jenny Offill’s Weather“, Alluvium 8.2 (2020): n. pag. Web. 13 July 2013, https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.2.04

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Clare Fisher is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. 

Works Cited

Cordle Daniel and Diletta De Cristofaro. “Introduction: The Literature of the Anthropocene”. C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings, 6.1 (2018):  https://c21.openlibhums.org/article/id/511/

Clarke, Timothy. “Some Climate Change Ironies: Deconstruction, Environmental Politics and the Closure of Ecocriticism”. Oxford Literary Review, 32.1 (2010),131–149. 

Clarke, Timothy. Ecocriticism On the Edge: the Anthropocene as Threshold Concept. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Godfrey, Rebecca. “Learning to Die: An Interview with Jenny Offill”. Paris Review, 14 February 2020. (Accessed 23 March 2020): https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/02/14/learning-to-die-an-interview-with-jenny-offill/

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin”. Environmental Humanities,6 (2015), 159–195.

Jamison, Leslie. “Jenny Offill’s Weather is Emotional, Planetary and Very Turbulent”. New York Times, 7 January 2020 (accessed 24 March, 2020): https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/books/review/weather-jenny-offill.html

Offill, Jenny. Dept. of Speculation. London: Granta, 2014. 

Offill, Jenny. Weather. London: Granta, 2020. 

Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Ngai, Sianne. Ugly FeelingsCambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Ngai, Sianne. “Our Aesthetic Categories.” PMLA 125.4 (October 2010), 848–958.

Kingston-Reese, Alexandra. Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2020.

Scutts, Joanna. “Interview: Jenny Offill: I no longer felt like it wasn’t my fight”. The Guardian. 8 February 2020. (Accessed 24 March 2020): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/08/jenny-offill-interview

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