At first, there is nothing special about Jenny Offill’s “Weather.” The narrator, Lizzie, considers the events of her life in trivial, tearse paragraphs that best emulate the blog posts of the bored Brooklynite that she is, and seems blissfully unable to more than scratch the surface of her own emotions. Lizzie exists within a limbo-like space in which nothing really matters, and therefore everything does. Buying tools is important. Birthday cakes are important. The melting glaciers are important, too. There is nothing special about Jenny Offill’s “Weather.” And that’s what’s so great about it.
And as the reader glazes through the vignettes of Lizzie’s life, both upbeat and monotonous, it must, somewhere along the line, click that “Weather” is about the imminence and malignancy of climate change. Once the reader adjusts to this realization, Lizzie is suddenly no longer that Brooklynite, and abruptly becomes the only person who actually knows how to talk about climate change. When describing an ordinary trip to the playground with her son, Eli, Lizzie explains, “A last spring across the playground and we make it just in time. I’m out of breath, sweaty, sad. I kiss Eli’s head, trying to undo the rush. Why didn’t I have more kids so I could have more chances?” What begins as a forgettable journal entry is interrupted suddenly by a dramatic tone of melancholy, (Lizzie has lost her chance at growing her family, and does not feel as though she has entirely succeeded with the one she has now), and subsequently enveloped in an overwhelming subtext of doom: that inevitable undercurrent of oh shit, why did we bring children into this world?
Having been born in 1998, climate change has always been an undeniable reality. I simply cannot picture living in a world that is not on the brink of ending. I remember the first time I became really aware of the state of our planet: a classmate in first grade found a photo of an emaciated polar bear standing on a shrinking ice cap, trembling and morose. Some classmates seemed angry, some sad, but I couldn’t bring myself to react emotionally. And, despite the New Yorker op-ed induced heart palpitations, and subdued heartache at the notion that I probably shouldn’t have children, the feeling of doom does not linger for me. It never has. It is tragically easy to read that we have passed the threshold for saving our only planet, and then go to a party, or to the grocery store, or to the movies, and simply forget all about it.
Of course, it is impossible to articulate just how heartbreaking and catastrophic it is that we have destroyed the earth. But smoke signalling long-form articles do not catch the readers’ attention, nor do they reflect the actual ethos of our population when it comes to climate change. Ofill has miraculously tapped into that kind of storytelling. When she tells us ‘[t]he work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world,” she simply yet brilliantly highlights the irony of the nonchalance with which we bring catastrophic language into everyday events: a workplace is not the end of the world; only the end of the world is the end of the world.
The vignette-style of “Weather” helps Ofill to neatly draw out the tragicomedy that is the American interaction with climate change. Once, she describes a conversation about the aforementioned melting glaciers. “‘Listen, I’ve heard all about that,’ says this red-faced man. ‘But what’s going to happen to the American weather?’” This comical line of dialogue sheds light on the dangerous American sense of narcissism when it comes to climate change, and the frustrating inability for people to understand its implications. The marvel of “Weather” is that it uses funny anecdotes to quietly illuminate the modern blasé attitude toward end-times, what is so frustrating about that attitude, while also dealing with the fact that it’s the only way we can really act. Now close the book and move onto the next thing.
For me, productivity used to mean reading a Victorian novel cover to cover in one day, or writing ten pages on some niche subsect of Andrei Tarkovsky’s filmography, or doing a deep clean of my bathroom, which I share with two college aged boys. Now that I’m in quarantine and the world is crumbling around me, productivity consists of imagining picking up a book at some point in the distant future (and never doing it), making nachos for dinner, (well, microwaving cheese on tortillas), or exploring the “dark” corners of my beloved iPhone. This morning, for example, as I laid in bed until one, I changed my phone wallpaper four different times, had a frustratingly limited conversation with Siri, and, most importantly, re-discovered the Voice Memo app.
My Voice Memos exist as a deeply personal archive that I had completely forgotten about. One takes me back to much better times: a frantic, detailed recollection of the circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno that I saved at 3:04 AM the night before a comparative literature exam, and dictated lying in bed with my mouthguard in. That one reminds me of a moment that literature not only motivated and inspired me endlessly: it was my entire life. Another one is from when I was living with my twin sister in a tiny apartment in New York City. I recorded a stream-of-consciousness monologue on my senior project for the entire time it took to walk from East Twentieth Street on First Avenue to Forsyth Street in Chinatown (thirty-five minutes and twenty-two seconds). Partway through the memo, (approximately sixteen minutes in), I ran into a girl, Rachel, that I went to high school with. She was polite--but looked at me like I was insane. Probably because I was talking to myself.
But regardless of what Rachel thought, the fact is, I have uncovered an artifact that shows my dedication to literature and academia. New York City was bustling and lively all around me--people were getting in fights, people were walking to auditions and film shoots and were, like me, inspired by everything happening around them. And, to me, that mattered, and it didn’t. There I was, in the middle of everything, in the place that everyone wants to be, and I was talking to myself like a crazy person about my senior project. I was both implicitly inspired by and absorbing all the life that I was in the middle of and too involved in my own world to give a shit.
The Voice Memo still feels either pretty niche, or like more of an afterthought. After all, it’s a “memo”--which is not a term that exactly invited literary genius. But, between flipping through my old notes, or even my old journal entries, and the silly, terse voice memos on my phone, the latter connected me most significantly with my own personal “history.” It was just me, unfiltered, not at all self-conscious, jotting down what I thought was the most important thing in that moment; what I most didn’t want to forget.
Almost serendipitously, the Voice Memo is the basis of Ben Lerner’s short story “The Media,” which was published in the New Yorker’s latest edition. Not only does the story follow the Voice Memo format--beginning with “Walking at dusk through the long meadow, recording this prose poem on my phone…” but the page itself offers the option of Lerner himself reading the poem. Lerner dazzles the piece with meta interjections, like “it’s me, Ben, just calling to check in,” and “Am I boring you? Do you need to make a call?” and thereby transports the piece, suitably named after the media it exists on, to some otherworldly, personal space, like the Voice Memo always is. It isn’t meant to be shared, but rather to remain a personal archive. But sharing it highlights the importance of history and the things that we stand to lose on a personal and existential level.
Contributor Paste Magazine, Film School Rejects, Consequence, Looper, CBR, & Screen Slate. First cow in the territory.