Issue 01 / “Contractions”

“Contractions”:

THE INDIVIDUAL AND ATMOSPHERIC IN OFFILL’S WEATHER

Shannon Lambert

Forms of Contraction

The weather taught us to “write funny,” says poet Brenda Hillman, and “When it stops / being wrecked, we’ll write normally.”1 Jenny Offill’s recent novel Weather (2020) is an example of this “writing funny.” A collection of fragments precariously held together by its curatorial narrator, Lizzie, Weather “wrecks” novelistic conventions like linearity and individuality. As Amitav Ghosh contends in his oft-cited The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), both of these are conventions that no longer reflect the complex realities of our current ecological crises. Weather’s first-person narration is challenged by the protagonist’s, Lizzie’s, enmeshment in networks which, with their different pulls, destabilise a sense of individual autonomy.2 Lizzie’s day-to-day experience is made up of a collection of relationships with others; helping patrons of the University library, caring for her husband and son, acting as a support and pseudo-therapist for her brother as he recovers from drug addiction, and, as the novel progresses, replying to the climate-related questions of listeners of Sylvia’s podcast. Increasing references to disaster psychology and adverbial repetitions like “soon, soon, soon, is the loop in my head”3 typify Lizzie’s growing concern with an uncertain future, with a world in which human-induced climate change has made the risk of human extinction—and the global suffering dealt on the homo sapiens’ way out—a very real possibility.
Despite being composed of “phrases in micro-script” that span just over 200 pages, Weather gestures to the macro, colliding the scales of the local and global through various “contractions.”4  The understanding of “contraction” here is itself a collision of sorts, a running together of method and concept. In part, it draws on approaches to affect and form in the ecocritical work of scholars like Nicole M. Merola and Heather Houser. As Houser argues, “affects are attached to the formal dimensions of texts such as metaphor, plot structure, and character relations”—a phenomenon she abbreviates as “narrative affect.”5 “Contraction” in this paper also draws on Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker’s Deleuzian-inspired use of the term in their development of “weathering”—a concept they use to explain the mutual affectability of human and weather bodies.6 In Deleuzian terms, contraction describes a synthesis of time where the present contains folds of the past and future.7 As Deleuze explains, temporality is cyclical rather than linear; in its repetitions elements of life solidify into bodies, habits, and feelings:

“What we call wheat is a contraction of the earth and humidity…What organism is not made of elements and cases of repetition, of contemplated and contracted water, nitrogen, carbon, chlorides and sulphates, thereby intertwining all the habits of which it is composed?”8

Neimanis and Walker use the concept of contraction to consider how human and climate bodies are materially and temporally imbricated in one another, and they seek moments of synthesis with questions like, “How has the hot breath of the earth, the battering of its rain, the reprieve of its gentle snows, shaped my own sinews, my gait, the ebb and flow of my own bodily humors?” And, how has human action shaped this meteorological breathing, battering, and reprieving?9 While Neimanis and Walker explore contraction in everyday experience, this essay zooms in on its presence in literature. By playing with the flexibility of the term to describe both contagion and condensation, it is possible to ask: what does it look and feel like to read with a contracted body, with attention to contracted formal patterns like loops and synecdoche?10

Psychology with Ecology

On the levels of both content and form, Weather is preoccupied with loops. Amidst references to cycles of breath in meditation, reincarnation, scientific revision, the cycling of fashion, and descriptions of people “milling” about, the novel links form and affect through the words of a disaster psychologist: “in times of emergency,” the psychologist says, “the brain can get stuck on a loop, trying to find a similar situation for comparison.” Later, Lizzie’s friend Will grounds this ‘trying’ in the body, describing how “The body kn[ows] things before your brain d[oes]. You start[…] noticing different things.”11 The psychologist’s and Will’s words prime readers for a body-based reading attentive to “different things”; yet, the body read with here is not the phenomenological human body, but a “contracted” one containing multitudes, a body which synthesises different temporalities and scales.12 The two main devices the novel uses to create a cyclic reading experience are repetition and revision. By including textual echoes across fragments, Offill prompts readers to “flick backwards” to determine where exactly they’ve seen a similar word.13 For example, an instance of the word “mesh” recalls an earlier use of “enmeshment.” In these moments, our (present) encounter with “mesh” is modified by the (past) echo, “enmeshment,”14 and vice versa.
As well as repetition, the novel often uses micro-revisions, which encourage readers to back-track and reread fragments. For example, the anxiety-inducing phrase “I wake to the sound of gunshots” is belatedly modified by, “Walnuts on the roof, Ben says.”15We find similar revisions with a “mouse skull” that turns out to be a knob of ginger and with the top of a tree that “is on fire. Or else it’s fall again.”16 “Narrative patterns,” Houser writes, “carry affective patterns,” and with strategies like repetition and revision, readers engage with the novel in a nonlinear way, a cyclic mode of reading which troubles not only the teleological thrust of conventional realist novels, but also constantly undermines the reader’s sense of affective stability.17
With its focus on a changing climate, the novel’s micro-moments of uncertainty accumulate into a more identifiable form of eco-anxiety—a state which contracts the individual and ecological. For example, as Lizzie watches her son, Eli, test markers, “shadowtime”—“the feeling of living in two distinctly different temporal scales simultaneously”18—intervenes: “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.”19 Like this example, the novel frequently compresses the local and global into fragmented bursts of “mundane intensity.”20 These spatiotemporal contractions link the uncertainties and fragmentations of meteorological and the mental patterns, and give the novel a synecdoche-like quality, where humans and weather are “enmeshed” parts of each other’s wholes. Contractions, such as those briefly explored here, encourage “reading in [a] doubled way,”21 or, reading for nonlinear patterns where the local and global coexist and collide, and where “organizational, grammatical, or lexical disorder” might evoke broader ecological breakdowns like “habitat fragmentation.”22  
Even stepping back from the risk-themed caricatures presented in advertising, most of the stories we tell about risk are problematic at best. Our collective narrative response to the risk society has been to perfect the art of exquisite rationalization, spinning elaborate tales to justify our failure to make difficult decisions, take costly actions, or address uncomfortable realities. We continue to struggle with problems like food insecurity and extreme poverty even though scientific and logistical solutions to these problems are legion. Corporations like Fox and several other holdings of the Murdoch news empire have made a business out of terrifying and enraging their audiences, creating elaborate story-worlds around the risks of globalization, cultural pluralism, socialism, and so forth. The growing prominence of this narrative-driven, fear-based approach to risk has legitimized even more extreme risk stories, as QAnon conspiracy theories in the U.S. and the hateful rhetoric of white supremacists. Considering the increasingly perilous relationship we have with such risk stories, one might be forgiven for wondering if we’re really very good at stories after all.
The deeply embedded narrative systems in the brain are designed to work with materials that are directly available: memory and experience, observations from the senses, and our finely tuned social awareness of how our actions will affect the feelings of those around us. For example, researchers in Japan have shown that asking communities engaged in long-term planning to select a spokesperson for future generations leads to deliberations that are more favorable to long-term sustainability and equity.
Reading Weather with our quasi-therapist Lizzie and with attention to scalar contractions, encourages thinking beyond the bounds of the text to a ‘psychology with ecology.’23 Both psychologists and scholars from the humanities have drawn attention to the need for psychology to broaden the scope of its research and practices beyond clinical walls to better account for the impacts of environmental affect, for weather that will not “moderate.”24 As weather patterns become more erratic and unpredictable, health sectors—at least in the Global North—are preparing for an unprecedented increase in mental health patients.25 For many, the impact of climate change on mental health will be indirect and vicarious; for example, “mediated and moderated by media representations and information technologies.”26 Literature is one of such mediums, and rather than didactically instructing readers on how to psychologically manage the impacts of ecological risk, Offill’s novel affectively models the uncertainty of our current climate, suggesting a way of writing and reading literature which might better reflect how weather “wrecks” the “pattern of ordinary life.”27

In the spaces between both textual fragments and bursts of attention, Weather seems to ask: How will we respond when the familiar fragments, when we lose not only our weather patterns, but our patterns of thinking, feeling, and importantly here, reading? How might we “channel all this dread into action”?28 Will we pay attention to the contractions of our anxious weather-bodies, or will we seek to ease these disruptions with palliative suggestions like, “Have you tried chamomile tea?29

Shannon Lambert is a PhD researcher at Ghent University, Belgium. She is a member of the ERC-funded project “Narrating the Mesh” (NARMESH), led by prof. Marco Caracciolo. Her work within the NARMESH project draws together narrative and affect studies to explore different forms of relationality in representations of contemporary science. Her work on topics such as interspecies communication, early modern automatons, environmental affect, and narrative transformations has been published in various journals, including American Imago and SubStance.