Camp ToB 2020

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Week 11: Weather

This week at Camp ToB we begin discussing our final book of the summer—wait, really, already?—Weather by Jenny Offill.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.

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Rosecrans Baldwin: Hello! It’s time for our final book at Camp ToB 2020, and it’s a doozy: From the author of (the tremendous, 2015 ToB contender) Dept. of Speculation comes a novel about a world gripped by a health crisis causing anxiety, gloom, and possibly species extinction, and it’s not the coronavirus! No, it’s the climate crisis, and university librarian Lizzie and her family are feeling it hard, as we’re led to believe by the book’s many fragments that combine everyday minutiae, observational comedy, and a sense of doom to show what it’s like to live with a planetary problem and not be able to do much about it.

Before we get into all of that, though, we want to mention something fun for all our campers: Over at Tables of Contents—a reading and tasting series conceived by chef Evan Hanczor—they’re offering up online tasting events around a couple of our Camp ToB reads: July’s Such a Fun Age and now Weather. Definitely check it out and read (and eat) along. Maybe next summer we can join up with Evan and make s’mores.

And now let’s welcome Activity Leader Matt Weinkam to the campfire! Matt, tell us a little bit about yourself please.

Matt Weinkam: Hi! I’m from Cincinnati and live in Cleveland now, where I work as associate director of Literary Cleveland, a nonprofit for writers. I tend to read for form first and story second, so I’m drawn to writers like Carmen Maria Machado or Valeria Luiselli, who foreground structure and play with genre. Recently I’ve been reading my way through every novel set in Cleveland to learn how the city has been imagined in fiction over time, and how that fiction shapes our perception of Cleveland today. But since the beginning of the global humbling, as Zadie Smith put it, my own writing and reading has been put on hold to focus on supporting our local writing community.

Rosecrans: To start, what grabbed you most from the first half of Weather?

Matt: Style grabs me first, for sure. I was, still am, a huge fan of Offill’s last book, Dept. of Speculation, so I’d been looking forward to Weather since it was announced. I just find the form of these books so engaging. On the one hand these little fragments are so condensed they are like tiny jewels of language. On the other hand, they can be about anything, so it really opens the book up to everything from Greek myth to knee trouble to quizzes, to “There is a species of moths in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s a bit of a junk drawer in terms of subjects—although a meticulously curated junk drawer of thematically linked junk. The way these fragments come together is the real artistry of the book. As Lizzy says “…I think of leaves, of something falling and accumulating without notice.”

Rosecrans: There really are so many lines you can underline in this book.

Matt: I’m sure this style can be a barrier for some (the first pages in particular, it can be hard to find your footing) and for reasons I don’t understand I’ve found it hard to embrace other books written in a similar form (The Friend or The Crying Book), but perhaps I’m just Offill’s ideal reader. I will say I wasn’t quite as enamored by Weather as I was by Speculation, but I’m wondering if that is just because the style is more familiar now. The same way you will always love the first album you heard by your favorite band, whether or not it is actually their best.

Are you ever drawn to style before story? Is the form of this book one that works for you?

Rosecrans: Yes and yes. And I’m reminded of one of my favorite books from a previous ToB, HHhH. I also really enjoyed Dept. of Speculation, in part because I was so reminded of one of my favorite authors, Mary Robison, whom Offill has cited before as a particularly strong influence. Readers, if you dig Offill, you may really love Robison’s novels, like Why Did I Ever.

In Weather, though, as I turn the pages, the form and style are working less well. The narrative is broken into chunks separated by ellipses. In another novel these might be scenes, and sometimes they are here, too, but often they’re just a couple paragraphs sitting side by side with perhaps some association by topic—e.g., there’s a moment of home life when the narrator’s young son returns home and plays a game while Lizzie reads a supermarket flyer about how to talk to people experiencing depression, and it all feels related. But sometimes it doesn’t feel related. And the paragraphs are situated oddly. They’re all left-aligned, so to speak, with no starting indentation—Commentariat, if any of you are designers, please weigh in this week—and they’re separated from each other by what looks like an extra paragraph break. So each fragment’s paragraphs are both weightier on the page, as if they’re meant to stand on their own as some kind of earnest-ironic koans, yet also more trivial, more detached, which ultimately (for me) become more fatiguing and less interesting, particularly the further I get into the book. Also, there are occasional sidebars that appear surrounded by dashes sometimes, lines sometimes, like pullquotes in a magazine story but sometimes without attribution, and it’s never really suggested how to read them. Do we read them ironically? As expert commentary? As addendum? Or, as if the author just couldn’t stop herself from stuffing in one more wad of (suggested) context?

Adam Mars Jones went after the book on this in his review in the London Review of Books, basically saying there’s a lot of wish-wash going on, and I’m kind of in agreement. How about you?

Matt: Damn, Rosecrans, I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel the same to some extent. I’m of two minds about this. Or maybe one mind and one gut.

My mind says there are great thematic reasons for writing this book in this form: The chunks are separate but connect in a way that mimics the interconnectivity and mutual dependency of the human and natural world; ideas and narratives accumulate not unlike slowly rising temperatures; the flattening of importance of paragraphs levels the profound and the trivial and feels more like my messy lived experience. And I don’t share Adam Mars Jones’s complaints about tone. He seems to want the author or the character to explain how to feel about everything, whereas I find the fact that I can read certain paragraphs chunks both earnestly and sarcastically is a feature of the form, not a bug. It allows concrete descriptions to take on multiple resonances, like images in poetry. It invites me to participate in the creation of meaning in the book.

Rosecrans: You are getting me to reevaluate my opinion as we speak! At least kind of.

Matt: But my gut is in agreement. On my first read I wanted more from this book too. I kept waiting for something to happen, but I’m not sure what. For the book to go deeper somehow? For the personal narrative to become urgent? I just wanted to be moved more deeply, I guess. And to your point about the wide variety of ideas in the paragraphs: we’re already bombarded by information in everyday life so maybe what we want from fiction is a narrative that pulls a stronger signal out of that noise.

Rosecrans: I understand all of that. I think my general impression as I made my way through the first half was that this book, for all its charming tones and enjoyable morsels of observation, was really not getting as good as I wanted it to be.

In terms of waiting for something to happen, this is obviously a difficult book to talk about in terms of plot, and not just because it’s so fragmented. Lizzie is a librarian with a family. As a side job, she answers notes received by Sylvia, her former mentor and professor, an environmental podcast host. So, we see the climate crisis and its influence on Lizzie’s daily life in multiple ways, and to me this feels like the book’s single subject—daily life and the climate crisis—and it’s sometimes obvious, sometimes concealed, papered over by the stuff of daily life, things like grocery lists, birth notices, overheard comments at work, and above all Lizzie’s subjective experience of the world, which is probably the book’s strongest element. What do you see holding this book together besides climate?

 

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. Then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience—but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned from her years of wandering the library stacks.

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.

 

Matt: Yeah, this is why I end up giving rambling answers when friends ask what the book is about. Lizzie’s awakening to the frightening realities of climate change is definitely the central concern of the book and where the understory rises most clearly to the surface. Her new side job reading emails for and traveling with her former mentor who hosts a climate nihilist podcast has a profound effect on her. “Lizzie’s become a crazy doomer,” her partner says at one point.

But I agree even that most overarching storyline isn’t really a plot in the way we usually think of it. Dept. of Speculation had a central marital infidelity that gave the book real urgency and personal stakes. Weather doesn’t have the same urgency driving me through, even though the stakes this time (the fate of the planet) are exponentially higher. This is the challenge for all books tackling climate change, I think: How do you make this hyperobject feel visceral? How do you move the reader?

Rosecrans: I haven’t read a piece of fiction that’s done it yet. If anything, I’m waiting for somebody to write this period’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, but maybe that’s too old of a frame. Though I read nonfiction like The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, or Ash Sanders’s tremendous article “Under the Weather” for The Believer, and I’m moved, gutted, and rapt.

Matt: I read Weather a second time for this summer camp and discovered the other through line holding the book together has to do with caretaking. You see this in particular with how Lizzie feels responsible for her brother, Henry [her brother is a recovering addict —ed.], but it extends to childcare, to Lizzie’s job as a librarian, to how we take care of animals and nature and the planet. If we’re all connected, if what I do affects you (as we’re painfully realizing now during a pandemic), then we have a responsibility to care for one another. If the book has a motto it is: “Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: What if everything I do does?”

Rosecrans: Yes! And a very good point about the caretaking theme. It’s a theme that’s certainly keeping me going in this book when frequently I just want to throw it against the wall. Here’s a question: How do you experience this book while reading during a pandemic? I’ll be candid and say sometimes I couldn’t face it, truthfully refused to pick this book up and went and read something else. (Reader: I read the whole thing, don’t worry.) But seriously, multiple moments in the story that address climate feel ripped straight out of today’s headlines about the coronavirus, and the synchronicity was alarming and ramped up my anxiety. At the same time, it felt more like coincidence than prescience—that a book about a global disaster could be about climate or corona. Though that may be due to my inability sometimes to distinguish between the two.

Matt: It certainly isn’t escapist literature or comfort food. There is a reason I spend most of my evenings these days rewatching Parks and Rec rather than reading Lawrence Wright’s pandemic novel. That said, upon rereading I found Weather is funnier than remembered.

Rosecrans: Yes. Good comic timing, voice, pointillism.

Matt: Offill is great at tone management, injecting levity or absurdity at just the right moment. Even if the subject is heavy I find it a light read. I also found myself thinking about how it is a book about climate change from a White upper-middle-class position. I check all the boxes on the “your privilege is showing” card so I identify with Lizzie’s worries about climate change. This forces readers like me to go on a journey with Lizzie and reflect on our own responsibility, our own culpability for environmental destruction. But I also wonder how someone on the margins or a reader in a country that is already paying the price for America’s carbon emissions feels about the book. Does that make sense?

Rosecrans: For sure, and it’s actually something we’ll get into next week, when our Activity Leader is from an island nation in Oceania. Matt, here’s a question: Our narrator Lizzie, would you characterize her as dysfunctional?

Matt: To be honest, a question like this never occurs to me as a reader. I think it is a flaw of mine. My mother-in-law is in a badass reading club and as a result we occasionally read the same novel and compare notes afterward. I often go on about some hifalutin bullshit having to do with language or structure and she’s like “yes, yes…and wasn’t Elena Richardson an awful person? I hate her.”

Rosecrans: Lollll.

Matt: But I like this question of dysfunction particularly for this book because it is also tied up with the question of who is actually crazy: the climate doomer or the climate denialist. Or: the climate activist or the neoliberal who believes in climate change but just doesn’t think it is urgent or that they will see the consequences in their lifetime (which is a different kind of denial). I think this is a question the book takes very seriously, and each reader may form a different opinion about what is the appropriate level of alarm and whether Lizzie crosses it. Personally I feel anticipatory dread whenever I allow myself to think about climate change, which is why I’ve gotten very good at avoiding thinking about it in any real sense. So I actually see our narrator as rather brave for letting that darkness in and sitting with the discomfort. It’s an attitude I hope to learn from.

Rosecrans: I really appreciate that and I value it. At the same time, I’ll be true to my gut and say, for the most part, I just don’t see it for Lizzie—I don’t think she is taking darkness in so much as manufacturing it around herself sometimes as a way to be in touch with the darkness? (Except, in my reading, in her relations to her brother and her son, which feel deep and genuine and pained and also joyful.) We talked about tone earlier, and I’ll confess the more I read this book, the more the tone encourages me to see Lizzie’s dread as less anxiety, more angst. Or maybe I’m just confused. Probably it’s the way this book has been manufactured, literally, in its extra-small hardback, extra-spaced-out layout, so as to render so many moments as to be seen as precious, pithy, ergo kinda inconsequential. But maybe that’s the point?

For the sake of Camp, we’re only addressing the first half of the book today, though you said you’ve already gone through it twice. Here’s a final question, and I’ll open with a quote. In Speculation, Offill quotes Rilke saying “surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.” In the second half of Weather, we’re going to see Lizzie to the end of… something. If you can rocket-ship back in time to your first impressions, what was it going to take for this book to really land for you by the last page?

Matt: I too wish Lizzie would do more in response to her awakening. Maybe become an activist, maybe take a big risk or make a radical change in life. But I don’t think it’s that kind of book, is it. Most of us aren’t so brave, and maybe we are the people Offill is interested in representing.

Rosecrans: Yes, great point. 

Matt: For the novel to land I want Lizzie to find a way out of the trouble we’re all in. Is that too much to ask? Just solve the entire problem of climate change, Lizzie! Or maybe I have a different but equally impossible hope: that Lizzie (or Offill) shows me an option besides denial and nihilism, a third way. I, like Lizzie, read about climate change and either ignore it or slip into a doom spiral. Maybe I buy more secondhand clothes or donate to environmental activist organizations, but my contributions feel hopelessly feeble and small. There’s got to be a better option, something healthier, more meaningful, more impactful. Fiction is a place where we can imagine that new path. Dept. of Speculation did this nicely in how it sidestepped the seemingly binary responses to marital infidelity, so maybe Weather can do the same for climate change. I can feel how small my thinking is on this matter, and my hope for Lizzie, for the book, for all of us, is that we discover a new way out, a new way through, together.

Rosecrans: A wonderful thought to end on. Our great thanks to Matt today! Commentariat, let us know what you think, then join us here next week for a trio of big things. One, we’ll discuss the book in total. Two, we’ve got a big announcement about the Super Rooster, coming in October. Three, you’ll vote for your August favorite—and then, right after that, our summer champion!

 

The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar

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The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s next book, Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles (June 2021), is available for pre-order. For his magazine articles and other books, try rosecransbaldwin.com. More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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