Leslie Jamison on Jenny Offill's Book 'Weather'
Leslie Jamison is here in the studio. Her most recent book is make it screen and make it burn essays which was reviewed in the book review last fall all but she's here now to talk about another book. She reviewed this week on our cover. Jennie O. Foles Weather Leslie. Thanks for being here. It's so wonderful to be here so you. Let's first talk about Jenny full. Who she is? Pearl Siegel staff critic for the Times. Were a profile of Jennie O.. Full in this this week's issue of the New York Times magazine but give us a sense of who this writer is. When I think about Daniel's work and why it matters and why I think it's really created aided the sense of excitement around so many readers I think part of it you know she writes about motherhood and marriage and things that can get lumped under the general neural umbrella term domesticity but she brings them to life in these incredibly razor-sharp ways and there shouldn't even be a but conjunction to that sentence right like wire wire those states of being not razor-sharp somehow but but sometimes they can get seen as softer sentimental and she brings both very different form and a very different tone to how how she writes about them and how she does justice to their emotional extremity? Now I'm thinking that we have to make a challenge to ourselves not to use the word but for the rest of this partnership. I think there we go that we're are GONNA fail so we'll just we'll we'll put that aside. This book weather is her third novel her. I was last things and then it took her fifteen years to write. Her neck spoke department of speculation which came out in two thousand fourteen and was one of our ten best books of the year. And I feel like that book really brought her to you. A wider attention perhaps not bestseller list attention but it was hugely critically acclaimed and beloved by readers. Let's start talk a little a bit about that book and why it struck such a chord and I think it's no accident when you said it was like fifteen years until the next book which actually sort of part of the plot of Department of speculation too. It's like there's a writer who is taking a long time to put her second novel. Part of I think you know my understanding from interviews. She's done. The story of that book has that it started as a much more conventionally structured novel and it sort of took her a long time to whittle it down to its really searing form which is a very a fragmented form where you feel like you're getting these absolutely essential bursts of exerience. I think her agent described at once as more like an x Ray than a body which I thought was such such an amazing evocation of how it works and so part of why it caught. Hold I think is that it wasn't it wasn't just very smart about feeling and it had this strong long hard and it's about a infidelity and marriage sort of preparing itself but it also it seemed to find a new language for feeling a new structure for feeling the guy I want to go back to that the fragments Manson the structure for people who've not Reggiani Oval. We should say this. Her books are really short. They're really really short but they are packed and yet they don't feel dense and part of that is due to structure and you use the word fragments. People use the word fragments or fragmentary or cones. Let's talk about a house. She structures these books because it is especially when department speculation came out in two thousand fourteen. It felt very different from what was being written and it felt very very different from the way in which a domestic novel was being written. You know it makes me think a little bit about the way that like Virginia Woolf would describe moments of being you know that somehow we have these moments where it feels like something about experience is intensified or crystallized on. I think Jenny has a real knack for like putting her finger on the pulse of those moment. So maybe it's just an ordinary moment like in this latest novel. where she comes home from the her narrator comes home from feeling this intense panic about climate aamot change and her sons playing minecraft noon? SORTA get like putty off of his fingers. Like it's not in a dramatic sense like it's that's not a huge plot point happening in that moment but she manages manages to find these ways that seemingly insignificant moments if you if you describe them so precisely and locate some kind of feeling what's happening in them quivering inside them. She does justice to it and the way that her books are structured. I don't think there are like us in this weather. There are parts. I can't remember if in Department of Speculation Stephen divided into chapters but it's these single paragraphs are a few paragraphs spaced apart on the page. So not not only. Is it a small book but it actually. I mean you could theoretically sit down and read it in a couple of hours I did. You did theory. You could sit down down and read it very quickly and one of the things that I think people then mistakenly assume is that. Oh you know sort of hastily written you get the cents though once you are reading it that not at all does feel something. That is very much labored over almost like poetry in terms of the precision of the ways in which the things that she's putting into those little sections as you pointed out it's often about the contrast in a given moment between something very granular and domestic and personal and then some larger thought. That's going on or something happening in the greater world. Do you think that was what was is so striking about department of speculation. The fact that she was doing not that she was taking something like a domestic novel. That was you know. Just as you said kind of a story of a Brooklyn Glenn Mother and infidelity and work life balance and these things that so many books are about but infusing in it these larger the issues. I think that's a really good point that so often. What makes these like short bursts? CLO- fuel incandescent our field. Charged is is that they're very granular. But they're also holding some kind of emotional intensity and I think when you're writing about something like infidelity where there's both the danger of somehow telling a story that people feel like they've heard before story that feels intrinsically melodramatic. It can really bring out the humanity of the story to pay attention to the granularity of of like a one scene. That's rising to mind from that novel is like the narrator after a conflict with her husband going to stay at a hotel overnight and and like preying on the carpet of the hotel floor. But it's like it's like that hotel carpeting that holds so much feeling rather than just like the larger obstruction of of infidelity per se. Or something and so I think it is that scale shifting that can happen in a space of a paragraph. Can that happen across the course the whole book. That's also really operative in this latest book. where the skills or even bigger because among other things about climate change is like one of the biggest skills yes yes yeah? Let's talk about weather and let's start start with what it's about even though you know as we think people are probably sensing when you talk about Jenny ovals work. It really isn't about plot. Yeah but what is whether yeah so the narrator of weather is a mother who years ago dropped out of a PhD program and it's working as university librarian and she takes a job job working for her former mentor. Who does a podcast about climate change? where she's answering all the letters that are coming in response to this podcast so there are a few different? There's the kind of plot of her I went to the overhauls narrator to answer my letters to this cast. I'm just kidding. I love answering your letters I would be. I thought you were GonNa even save answer my letters I was like I have a few letters. Live right Yeah I mean you know you have this narrators mother you have her as a wife wife you have her as a a worker and maybe a worker who feels a bit lost in the world. There's also for me. One of the most compelling plot lines in the book is about the narrators relationship with her brother. WHO's a recovering addict? He gets married and then has a a baby and her role in his life and her sort of desperate hope that he can put his life together. Other was a really moving strand among strands for me as well presumably. That's very deliberate. Bringing new life into a world that is in crisis crisis and feels like it's ending and I think that's one of the abiding emotional. Tensions in the book is like the the world is always beginning and ending at once. And maybe maybe there's something about that truism that has felt universal through time but it has a particular acuity now or the world is is it's ending he's send away by these factors that are at work but that dynamic of like yes the world is ending but also you wake up in the morning and you're touching base with your brother overtaxed to make sure he and the baby are doing okay that both of those are real on. Both of those are happening. I think we're seeing a wave of climate fiction and it's taking all of these different forms. Probably a most noticeably post apocalyptic and dystopia although there are also books like Richard powerhouses over story sometimes metaphorical Oracle sometimes very reality based feels different. Though I mean how does this differ from other fiction looking at climate and climate. Change for starters. You don't have that kind of like emotional. Buffer of the post apocalyptic landscape that emotional buffer mailing a strange way to describe a postal puck landscape. But it's like if the apocalypse is happening thing in Brooklyn Public School like that's the stage set for the book it feels more disquieting in certain ways because it's closer to home. It's not like Cormac McCarthy novel where a father and Zahn are like traveling the chart landscape like it's more immediate in that way and I think one of the challenges of writing about climate change is how to take this thing that is essentially on a larger scale than our minds can hold and how to make it a narrative we can hold. There's this moment early on in weather where the narrator is thinking about her son allies elementary school and she says the problem with the school is that it's not a bill on a human scale feels too large for these little children who are going into it and I I think in a way that lays out one of the aesthetic challenges the book right. It's like climate. Change isn't quite on a human scale but narrative is on a human scale. So how do you translate. How does she do it? Part of it has to do with what we're talking about a little bit earlier these questions of sort of scale shifting and simultaneity where you had these big questions of like the end of the world coming up either through the letters that are coming into this podcast or you know this narrator is doing what I think. We all do obsessive googling about lots of things where she's sort. I'm trying to see like how hot is it going to be in New York City and you know when her son is sixty years old or something like that and getting so freaked out by these numbers so you sort of have those larger questions that are always coming up against the interpersonal. TRAUMAS the books. So either it's like the obstruction of like how hot is the World GonNA get comes up up against the body of her actual son. She's imagining at age. Sixty or thinking about like the horsemen of the apocalypse. Coming in comes up against you know coming home ends ends giving the dog. His Lover Frog Toy. You know so the becomes on a human scale because we see a particular human with a particular life a particular brother who's giving bringing new life into the world that all of those abstract questions are hitting all of those granular