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Adam Mars-Jones on Jenny Offill
In the latest London Review of Books, Adam Mars-Jones embarks on an in-depth examination of the politics of Jenny Offill’s Weather and comes away suspicious, feeling that Offill doesn’t practice what she preaches:
One recurring pattern in the novel is the truncation of a scene so that a privileged element hangs in the air and is left to resonate. This mannerism seems particularly out of place when a conversation with Eli is arbitrarily arrested, since so much of Lizzie’s thinking and feeling is to do with her child and how to prepare him for disaster. (It’s odd not to be told Eli’s age, but no odder than being kept in the dark about the name of the family dog.) In the dollar store Eli asks who made all the things on the shelves. ‘“The Invisible Hand,” I tell him.’ And we cut to white space. Were there really no follow-up questions? Did you explain about capitalism and how it is killing the world, or just go home in triumph with your plastic colander? Eli takes an interest in robots and Lizzie finds him watching a video about one called Samantha. ‘She is made to look like a human and has two settings, the inventor says. In sex mode, she can moan when you touch her breasts. In family mode, she can tell jokes or talk about philosophy.’ End of section. If child-rearing in a time of crisis is to be part of the substance of your book, to abridge a scene in which the heroine explains (we assume) the destructive workings of sexism and/or technology is bizarre. What ends up being highlighted, particularly when the material concerns Eli, isn’t the self-sufficiency of the anecdote but the arbitrariness of its cutting off.
Blank space, a primary if easily overlooked constituent of the look of a page, is capable of producing powerful effects. The only inevitable reinforcement of cadence by white space takes place on a book’s last page. … Absence of comment is itself a form of commentary. Section endings, of which there can be half a dozen on a single page of Weather, intensify the flavour of what went immediately before, the last paragraph, last sentence, or last phrase. If the effect isn’t of a sprinkling of salt (wit) or a squeeze of lemon juice (irony) it will be a sprinkling of sugar. There isn’t a lot of wit on show in Offill’s novel, and the irony is sometimes adolescent in character. ‘He’ (You Know Who, He Who Must Not Be Named) is talking about something in space, perhaps his desire to establish a space force. Still, ‘Today Nasa found seven new Earth-size planets. So there’s that.’ Lizzie’s mother plans to make a four-hour drive to a university dental clinic, one so overwhelmed by demand that ‘there is a lottery system to see who gets to have their pain taken away. America is the name of this place where you can win big.’ The negativity here is curiously smug. Irony that shuts down a political reaction can hardly be described as searching.