Last Things (Vintage Contemporaries)

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Jenny Offill Exerts Herself

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It’s a Friday afternoon, and Jenny Offill, author of the widely acclaimed 2014 novel Dept. of Speculation, is at her home in the Hudson Valley. She’s speaking via Skype, about to broach the subject of her new novel, Weather (Knopf, Feb.), when her internet goes down. The conversation switches to the telephone, but Offill isn’t flustered. In some ways the interruption seems fitting. Both Dept. of Speculation and Weather, with their fragmented structures, suggest that linearity is suspect, that connection is fragile, and that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our understanding.
Offill’s biography, like her novels, is haphazard. Her parents were boarding school teachers, and throughout her childhood she moved around the country, living in Massachusetts, California, Indiana, and, eventually, North Carolina, where she attended high school and college, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating, she worked a number of odd jobs—waitress, bartender, caterer, cashier, medical transcriber, fact-checker, writer of “things for rich people who have a story to tell,” as she puts it.
She published her first novel, Last Things, in 2000, when she was 30. That book received critical acclaim but failed commercially. In the years that followed, Offill worked as an adjunct writing instructor at various universities and wrote children’s books. Like the writer-narrator of Dept. of Speculation, she struggled for years to produce a second novel.
When she did produce that second novel, it exceeded expectations. “I was hoping other writers would like it,” Offill, 51, says of Dept. of Speculation. “That was just a weird book. I didn’t think a novel that was structured like that would have a big audience.”
For all its unconventionality, Dept. of Speculation is propulsive and absorbing. Critic Elaine Blair, writing in the New York Review of Books, said it can be read “in about two hours.” She’s right. Perhaps this is why it didn’t remain some “weird book,” as Offill assumed it would. To date, Dept. of Speculation has sold about 57,000 print copies in hardcover and paperback, according to NPD BookScan; it has been acquired in 21 territories outside of North America; and it’s been optioned for film.
The novel tells the story of an unnamed woman who once aspired to be an “art monster” but, saddled with family and work commitments (including a gig as a ghostwriter for an egomaniacal “almost astronaut”), has thus far failed to realize her potential. The Wife, as she’s sometimes called, begins to question her devotion to her family when she discovers that her husband has had an affair with a younger woman. Proceeding in a series of frenzied fragments, separated by double paragraph breaks, the novel presents the narrator’s fearsome intellect as well as her changeable demeanor.
In a single brief chapter, the narrator alludes to Einstein, recounts the gruesome death of a Russian cosmonaut, quotes the explorer Frederick Cook, writes an imaginary and self-flagellating Christmas card to loved ones, describes her daughter swimming, and references the Stoics.
Dept. of Speculation’s success may also have been owed, in some small part, to its association with a style of writing, popular in the last decade, known as autofiction. The term has come to stand for a literary approach that does away with the conventions of fiction, such as plot and invented characters, and draws, or appears to draw, on the author’s lived experience.
Offill is often mentioned in the same breath as other practitioners of the form, such as Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner, but she smarts at the label. “Autofiction has been around for so long,” she says. She also feels it’s gendered, asserting that women who write it are assumed to be pulling from their diaries. “I wouldn’t be a fiction writer if I didn’t believe that you could invent, and conflate, and add to things.” And Weather, while formally similar to Dept. of Speculation, certainly strays from the precepts of autofiction. Its narrator is named, for example, and its preoccupations are less insular.
The book centers on a librarian named Lizzie who is raising a son with her husband and caring for a brother with a history of drug addiction. Over the course of the novel, Lizzie, who begins working for a former mentor who operates a podcast about futurism, becomes increasingly fixated on the climate crisis and the doomsday preparation movement. Her anxieties only accelerate when Donald Trump (who is never named) is elected president.
Jordan Pavlin, Offill’s editor at Knopf, feels that Weather is “more ambitious in its themes” than Dept. of Speculation, and that “one of its most thrilling seductions is the way it uses the anxiety we are all experiencing in relation to the current climate—both literally and figuratively—as a plot engine.”
Offill says that with Weather she was looking to respond to the current moment more directly, to write a book that wasn’t “frozen in amber.” She was inspired to address climate change in part by her conversations with her best friend, novelist Lydia Millet, who has written about environmental issues for the New York Times and who addresses those themes in her fiction. “For years we’ve been talking, and at a certain point I thought, ‘I need to know more about this,’ ” Offill says.
At the same time, Offill worried about the pitfalls of political fiction, which she feels can be boring, didactic, and humorless. “I don’t love the language that’s available to talk about this stuff,” she says. “Do I like to say interconnectedness? No. Do I like to say web of life? Mm, no. If you’re not particularly drawn to earnestness, how do you make yourself be a more engaged person?”
Nonetheless, Offill thinks the central problems of our time—climate change, social justice—can’t be tackled individually. “It’s about getting more people—including people like me, who actually hate all group activities—to sign up for the messiness and frustration and occasional exhilaration of collective action. I’ve been to more marches and more meetings and I’ve written more postcards and called more people than I’ve ever done,” she says. “I don’t like to do any of that stuff.”
Weather, like Dept. of Speculation, is told through frenetic fragments. But where the fragments in Dept. of Speculation were meant to mimic the churning of the narrator’s mind, the fragments here are meant to mimic weather. “People always say, ‘It’s an atmospheric book,’ ” Offill explains. “I wanted to see what it would be like to try to write atmospherically.”
The book, she says, is “meant to swirl” as if its paragraphs were clouds. Its atomized form is intended to congeal into an uneasy whole, mirroring the challenge of political movements, in which individuals must find a way to act in concert.
If Offill arrived at any wisdom by the end of writing Weather, it’s the wisdom captured in a quote the protagonist’s husband posts above his desk: “You are not some disinterested bystander / Exert yourself.” With Weather, Offill hopes to do just that.
This story was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

A Year in Reading: 2019

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Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile. 
The names of our 2019 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main pagesubscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of  What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of  White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of  City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of  The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of  Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of  Disappearing Earth.Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.Kate Zambreno, author of Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents) and Screen Tests.Chanelle Benz, author of  The Gone Dead.John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-TopBeatrice Kilat, a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif.T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.Grace Loh Prasad, a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America.Kaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of California.Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field.Matt Seidel staff writer for The Millions.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Rene Denfeld, author of The Butterfly Girl.Bridgett M. Davis, author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.Anita Felicelli, author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent.Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir.Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and Dept. of Speculation.Joseph Cassara, author of novel The House of Impossible Beauties.Daniel Levin Becker, senior editor at McSweeney’s.Nishant Batsha, a writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, TriQuarterly, and The Believer.Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Andrew Martin, author of Early Work.Kate Petersen, a writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Paris Review Daily.Anne Serre, author of The Fool & Other Moral Tales.Tanaïs, author of Bright Lines and creator of independent beauty and fragrance house Hi Wildflower.Sophia Shalmiyev, author of Mother Winter.Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Roberto Lovato, teacher, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, California.Dustin Kurtz, Social Media Manager for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull.Kevin Barry, author of novel Night Boat to Tangier.Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women.
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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