SHORTLISTED FOR THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2020
'This is so good. We are not ready nor worthy' Ocean Vuong
'What are you afraid of, he asks me and the answer of course is dentistry, humiliation, scarcity, then he says what are your most useful skills? People think I'm funny'
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practise her other calling: as an unofficial shrink. For years, she has supported her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. Sylvia has become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and 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.
As she dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you've seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to acknowledge the limits of what she can do. But if she can't save others, then what, or who, might save her?
And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in--funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.
A librarian becomes increasingly obsessed with doomsday preparations in Offill's excellently sardonic third novel (following Dept. of Speculation). Lizzie, a university librarian working in Brooklyn, already feels overwhelmed with guiding her son, Eli, through New York City's crowded elementary school system without the extra strain of dealing with her addict brother's constant crises. Mostly happily married to a computer game designer, Lizzie introduces anxiety into her marriage when she takes a second job answering emails for a former mentor who is now the host of a popular podcast about futurism. Fielding questions from both apocalypse truthers and preppers for the coming climate-induced "scarcity," Lizzies becomes convinced that doomsday is approaching. Her scattered, frenzied voice is studded with arresting flourishes, as when she describes releasing a fly: "Quiet in the cup. Hard to believe that isn't joy, the way it flies away when I fling it out the window." Set against the backdrop of Lizzie's trips to meditation classes, debates with a taxi driver, the 2016 presidential election, and constant attempts to avoid a haughty parent at Eli's school, Lizzie's apocalyptic worries are bittersweet, but also always wry and wise. Offill offers an acerbic observer with a wide-ranging mind in this marvelous novel.
American novelist, children's writer, and editor. Her career path was laid out from an early age considering both her parents were English teachers at private schools in Massachusetts. Her first novel Last Things (1999) recieved critical acclaim, but it took her 15 years to produce the second, Dept. of Speculation. That was named one of "The 10 Best Books of 2014" by the NY Times, and by me. She teaches in the MFA programs at Brooklyn College, Columbia University and Queens University.
Weather (noun): the state of the atmosphere at a particular place and time.
Weather (transitive verb): to come safely through a difficult period or experience
Plot threads rather than plot. Lizzie works in the library. Lizzie as mother and wife. Lizzie as support person for substance abusing brother. Lizzie as PA to old mentor turned self help guru. Lizzie reflects on the neighbourhood (Flatbush) as new waves of immigrants descend on it. Lizzie meets attractive stranger, and so on. It's about being busy, thinking you are still young but starting to realise you're getting older, existential anxiety, climate anxiety, and more. This is Ms Offill's shtick. If you've read Dept of Speculation, you'll recognise it immediately. There's an 'end of times' vibe lingering in the background that's exacerbated by a certain presidential election result, which is only ever alluded to, never discussed specifically.
Lizzie the protagonist holds centre stage. Supporting cast includes husband Ben, a Jewish philosopher turned educational software designer (he needs to be philosophical when dealing with his missus), personality disordered brother Henry (Lizzie isn't just over-invested in him, she's enmeshed), son Eli, sundry other relatives, friends, and neighbours.
Third person with frequent chopping and changing told from Lizzie's POV.
Spare doesn't come close. An unconventional style executed to perfection. A funny (laugh-out-loud at times), witty, sardonic flight of ideas, which mimics how most if not all of us think, even though we don't think about the same things as Lizzie.
If Ms Offill cranked out one of these out each year, I might tire of it, but I was hungry for more after Dept of Speculation, and I feel the same way now.