Dept. of Speculation
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. $22.95, 192 pages.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. $23.95, 224 pages.
“I TELL HER that I’ve been thinking that we should buy land somewhere colder.” Lizzie, the narrator of Jenny Offill’s 2020 novel Weather, recounts a lunch with her boss, Sylvia, in a Manhattan restaurant. Lizzie is mother to a school-aged son, Eli, and new aunt to an infant named Iris. Sylvia is a climate change expert, a regular on the lecture circuit and host of a popular podcast called Hell and High Water. She has no children. “If climate departure happens in New York when predicted,” Lizzie continues, “Eli and Iris could—” But Sylvia cuts in: “Do you really think you can protect them? In 2047?”
Weather is Offill’s second novel with questions of creation, crisis, and motherhood at its center. The first, 2014’s Dept. of Speculation, shares with Weather a fragmentary style, the narratives told in brief snippets of dialogue and sparsely drawn vignettes. Both novels are mostly set in New York. Both narrators are writers who teach and take on side work to keep their households afloat. Both are mothers. Both books thrum with tension between the need to make meaning through art and to make (and protect) a next generation to carry it forward. And both are novels about calamity. In Dept. of Speculation, the crisis is an affair, stormy emotional skies that the narrator refers to as “weather.” In Weather, the crisis is the climate, “the invisible horsemen galloping toward” Sylvia and Lizzie in their Manhattan bar.
Dept. of Speculation and Weather join a growing genre of writing about the choice to create children. Some, like Sheila Heti’s 2018 novel Motherhood, are told from the “before” side of that choice, and contemplate the loss of space for writing, for art, for self that may come with parenthood. In others, like Offill’s, the die is already cast, children are already had, that space already taken. Read together, Offill’s novels offer spare, elliptical meditations on the fraught nature of creation, biological and artistic, in the twenty-first century: how to choose what we owe to society, and what society owes us, how to reproduce—literally to make again—in a time when society might need revolution.
“My plan was to never get married,” says Dept. of Speculation’s anonymous narrator. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” But she does get married, to a man from Ohio who is, she says, “an admirable person.” He tries to fix anything he notices is broken, instead of thinking, as she does, “about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never outrun fucking entropy.”
Yet as a couple, they try to outrun entropy, to make something unbroken, with the birth of their daughter. The baby is perfect: but will only stop crying when the narrator paces the aisles of the local Rite Aid while her husband is at work, any ability to think drowned out by fluorescent lights and soft pop. The infant’s solid mass forms a new center of gravity in the narrator’s life, threatening to pull her away from her writing, her husband, herself. “I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.” Instead, her daughter learns to talk. She laughs. She breaks both wrists leaping from a swing set. She gets lice, then the family gets bedbugs. Such demands hobble the narrator’s art monster, although we see her desire to create spill out in moments of incandescent rage. Entropy catches up with them after all: the narrator’s rage ushers in the emotional calamity at the heart of the novel, the husband’s infidelity. When he admits to having an affair, the narrator asks him if the woman is taller, thinner, or quieter than her. “Easier,” he says.
Offill does not give us female rage as a personality quirk. In Dept. of Speculation, the narrator is torn between the demands of twenty-first-century motherhood and the drive to write. Time and money put her two desires structurally at odds. Or, in a country with no requirement for paid maternal leave, no government-funded child care, and schools that end before the workday, maybe time is money. Working outside the home requires someone else to care for your child. If that isn’t a spouse or grandparent, the cost of full-time day care in the United States is staggering: an average of $16,200 per year, per child. Families today spend 2,000 percent more on child care than they did in the 1970s, when women first entered the workforce in large numbers. The purchasing power of the average American worker, meanwhile, has remained roughly the same. Both of Offill’s narrators are older millennials, a generation that holds $1 trillion in student debt, owns fewer homes than previous generations did at their age, and has the dubious distinction of being the first Americans in history projected to be less financially well-off than their parents. The narrator must therefore work while assuming as much child care as possible for her family to maintain even a precarious hold on financial stability.
There is no reason, in the abstract, that the narrator could not share care duties and sublimated ambitions with her husband. No reason, except that in America patriarchy is expressed in capitalist terms: women are paid less and take a larger wage penalty for having children than men, and in heterosexual homes they perform more unpaid household labor and carry more of the family’s mental load. So, the narrator’s husband gets a raise, and her employment becomes flexible and invisible. For part of the book she is a ghostwriter, her words contractually eclipsed by a man who pays her to write in his name, because the hours are flexible enough for her to also care for her daughter. And because she is already home, she takes out the trash, buys fruit in season, and is content with not writing her second book. “Road not taken,” her husband shrugs when she expresses regret.
After all, isn’t a child supposed to be enough? In 2020, Anastasia Berg wrote in the New York Times that “there is something special about the decision to raise a child,” as doing so answers affirmatively “one of the most fundamental questions a person can ask: Is human life, despite all the suffering and uncertainty it entails, worth living?” Leaving aside its cruelty (is a person who is unable to conceive also unable to deem life worth living?), Dept. of Speculation cautions against the narrowness of affirming life only via giving birth. Doing so, Offill warns, can create life but drive out the self. Such disappearance is written into the very structure of the novel: the narrator, who begins the book possessed of a singular “I,” becomes not a person but “the wife,” referred to only in the anonymized third person, by the last third. Surviving daily existence requires her to be anesthetized, literally medicated into domestic life, and forgetting— or at least tolerating—her inability to become an art monster. Caring for a child is so all-consuming, out of love and necessity, and because our policies and priorities bind women to an individual household’s needs. Dept. of Speculation is a eulogy for what is lost: what women like Offill’s narrator might have made. Embodied in Offill’s narrator, Berg’s logic is as self-fulfilling as it is reductive: one cares by producing children to care for. Reproduction eclipses all other forms of creation.
In Weather, Offill turns from the “furious weather” of an extramarital affair to a furious future, one of melting ice caps and warming oceans, from emotional crisis to climate crisis. Unlike the narrator in Dept. of Speculation, Lizzie comes to us named and known, but also already anesthetized. Running late each morning, Lizzie throws on “drab clothes and fancy glasses,” roughly brushes Eli’s hair, yells at him to find his shoes, and drags him the ten blocks to school on her way to work at a university library reference desk. She deposits Eli in line with seconds to spare and leaves sweaty and sad, awash in regret about her roughness and the rush. “Why didn’t I have more kids,” she asks herself, “so I could have more chances?”
Lizzie had once been Sylvia’s graduate student. For years Sylvia checked in regularly to see if Lizzie was continuing to waste her potential. (“The answer was always yes,” Lizzie tells us.) Now, for extra money, Lizzie answers Sylvia’s email, as Sylvia prophesies a New York mostly unlivable by 2047. In her spare time, Sylvia visits places the changing climate is erasing from the earth, what Lizzie calls “going, going, gone trips.”
Lizzie is less interested in trips to see what will be lost than she is in escapes from what is coming. Her days are spent trying to protect her son from the crises, large and small, that swirl around them: from detention by dragging him to school on time, from the elements by side-hustling to make their Manhattan rent, from the fire and floods that scientists predict by finding somewhere safer. She spends her evenings reading the blogs of doomsday preppers and searching for real estate in places less likely to be in the path of a warmth-swollen hurricane in the next quarter century. She learns to make a long-burning candle out of a can of tuna packed in oil, and how to identify a birch tree, which has an inner bark humans can apparently live on. She carries gum at all times, for “post-collapse morale”: it suppresses the appetite, and you can use the aluminum wrapper to start a fire, as long as you also have a battery. From her fortress of gum wrappers, tuna, and Zillow listings, Lizzie is able to convince herself, some of the time, that her family will be okay.
American women say they want three children, but are having, on average, just over 1.7.
Offill is unsparing in her portrayal of Lizzie’s emotional reach. Her brother shows her photographs of a Syrian father who traveled days across the Mediterranean in a dinghy and then walked thirtyfour miles to a Greek refugee camp with his daughter on his back. “I don’t think I could do that,” her brother worries. “I don’t think I’m strong enough.” You’re not going to have to, she tells him, confidently. To parent, Lizzie must reason other people’s suffering out of the picture; she must conceive of her present safety as a guarantee about the future, and imagine her individual capacity to be, or create, an exception. We’ll have enough money for medical care, we’ll move if the storms here are too bad. We are the shelter from the weather. Responsibility, for Lizzie, has narrowed to her child. Not to children, to a generation, but to her son. Lizzie’s is a deeply American—white, colonial, settler American—narrative, one where safety is not social but reduced to a nuclear family, striking out for new land: a Manifest Destiny for the age of climate emergency.
And can we blame Lizzie? Offill is stern but not unsympathetic. Lizzie parents in a country without the social infrastructure to make the work of raising new humans anything other than an overwhelmingly individual project—one that, by necessity, leaves Lizzie with no time for environmental politics. The immediate is the enemy of the proximate. No wonder the narrator of Dept. has no time to write. No wonder Lizzie’s visions of climate emergency are reduced to real estate.
In the United States, we call this freedom. In his concurring opinion in Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote that “freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties” protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The word choice has since become a rallying cry of progressive women’s movements, a synonym for abortion access finely pitched to a society far more likely to be swayed by claims to individual freedom than to anyone’s collective well-being. Choice assumes all people identifying as women can bear children, and that it is just an individual or couple making the choice.
But this particular choice is never made in isolation. Feminists of color have been calling out the term’s anemic reach since at least the early 1990s, when the Black feminist collective SisterSong offered “reproductive justice” in its place. Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, recently explained that “reproductive justice” is “the human right to have a child, not have a child, be able to raise your families in safe, secure surroundings with your basic needs met.” The point is less about having or not having, and more about the conditions in which that choice is made— and, most of all, about the conditions in which any resulting child will be raised.
The minimum wage is a reproductive justice issue. Same-sex marriage is a reproductive justice issue. Access to health care or child care is a reproductive justice issue. The failure to advocate, at a coordinated national level, for an ecologically stable future is a reproductive justice issue.
In the lifetime of Offill’s characters— the past forty years or so—few of these issues have been addressed in any systemic way. An attempt to create a universal child care system was vetoed by President Nixon in 1972, and never revived. Health care is expensive and remains largely tied to employment. Climate change barely rates the presidential debate stage, despite decades of activist work. With its single-minded focus on personal liberty, the United States has made a society often hostile to the lives of the collective. The result is that we create fewer lives: in 2019, births fell to the lowest number since 1985—despite the fact that there are 7 percent more women of childbearing age than thirty-five years ago. When a 2018 poll asked them why, they offered the same range of crises Offill’s novels point to: no time, money, or support, and fears of imminent climate catastrophes and economic collapse.
In this context, choice is once again revealed to be a misdiagnosis, the narrowest biological interpretation. The question is not, Do you want children?, but rather, Does your desire to have a child override the knowledge that, as a parent, you will be on your own? Or are the social and psychic barriers to parenthood so high, so discriminatory, or so terrifying that you cannot, or will not, participate? Maybe you cannot imagine living without your art monster, and know that the shape of your life, if you add in a child, would require you to. Maybe you cannot imagine yourself an exception to the fires and floods, or cannot morally tolerate making yourself an exception. Or maybe, as Meera Subramanian put it, “you might love children so much but are scared for the world that you’re going to give them.” Getting pregnant in 2021 is not a measure of how much you value human life, all due respect to Berg, or even of how much you want to have a baby. It is a measure of your willingness to assume a host of risks, many of them social in origin and in remedy.
In the contrast she draws between Lizzie the mother and Sylvia the climate prophet, Offill flirts with an almost unaskable question: What does it mean—is it even moral?—to have a child in a time of ecological collapse? In 2017, an article in Science answered no, or at least not many children, as the authors calculated each birth cost the world 58.6 metric tons of emitted carbon, far more than anyone can save by giving up airplanes, meat, or automobiles. But as Meehan Crist argued in the London Review of Books, such framing assumes no change to current fossil fuel consumption, and, in accordance with decades of oil company propaganda, frames the individual as responsible for systemic problems. Most of us, parents or childfree, cannot now live without oil; as Crist puts it, we need to argue for a world that would let us have “carbon-neutral” babies.
We do not live in that world. It needs to be made. It matters that Offill didn’t call her second novel Climate, the subject of the book’s larger preoccupation. Even in the title, the forest of tomorrow is obscured in the mundane everydayness of the trees, the individual practicalities of keeping one’s own progeny alive. Offill’s novels point at how hard it is to have a child and argue for the future of children, and not just because of school pickups and unfulfilling work. Lizzie’s child grows in the shadow of climate emergencies, which shoots the pages of Weather through with fear. Lizzie has no time for the rage of Dept. of Speculation. She is too busy looking for a bunker.
Instead it is Sylvia who has time for anger. Communicating that anger, and the revolution in how Americans live that requires mitigating, is her act of care, her own kind of mothering. “We don’t talk enough about how climate work—in which you confront a terrifying, gut-wrenching existential threat head-on— is a full body immersion,” Mary Annaise Heglar wrote in 2020. For Heglar, the labor of looking hard at loss means she is unsure if she will have children. But that is beside the point. “I don’t think I have to have children to have children. We, each of us, owe all of these children everything we have, because they are all we have left—whether or not they’re ‘ours.’”
Heglar’s argument gestures to Black and Indigenous feminisms. In American Black communities, women Patricia Hill Collins termed “othermothers”—who care for the children of others, whether or not they have children of their own—have long played critical roles, sharing child care responsibilities with parents and teaching children to expect their needs to be met by a community. In this context, Bernice Johnson Reagon explains, mothering is best understood as cultural work, “the entire way a community organizes to nurture itself and future generations.” Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim TallBear argues that the nuclear family is an institution devised to eradicate Indigenious family forms, which go beyond “producing and caretaking extended biological family” to include “making kin” through adoption and other relationships.
Crist’s central point, that no individual or family should remain childless solely because of guilt offloaded by an oil company’s public relations team, is critical. But hers is still a referendum on individual biological creation, on the question of what people with uteruses choose to do with them. Offill smuggles into her novels something far more revolutionary and expansive than an argument for why having biological children is a fine and good thing to do, even in times of crisis. Sylvia offers an example of what Stanlie M. James calls mothering: a kind of caring for children and community that is not dependent on biological reproduction.
Yet Offill’s novels also acknowledge that in the capitalist present, mothering as a verb is in tension with the noun motherhood. Caring for children makes her narrators less able to care for the world all children will inherit; Lizzie’s real estate fantasies manifest how her circumstances drive an individualized, antisocial impulse into the deeply social role of reproducing society itself. But Offill is as clear-eyed on the joy and importance of children as she is on the need of an Earth to shelter them. The climate crisis that so clearly threatens this shelter will not be solved by retreating to fortified homesteads, by creating pockets of individual exception from harm, by further carrying forth the myth of personal independence from one another. Lizzie’s motherhood needs Sylvia’s mothering. Offill allows her characters to mother in a plurality of ways: giving birth to children of their own; offering child care for the children of neighbors or relatives; educating or advocating for the children of all. Mothering, in the world she draws, can be a wide-ranging act. Love of the young is capacious. Caring for their lives has no biological requirement.
So, what and how should we create in a time of crisis? Perhaps it is a child. Perhaps it is a different kind of mothering, or fathering, one of advocacy, communication, education, action, or art; one disassociated from lineage, that does not require seeing a genetic mirror of the self in the next generation to care for it. The world needs both. O
Bathsheba Demuth is author of Floating Coast, as well as assistant professor of history and environment and society at Brown University.
Peggy O’Donnell is an assistant instructional professor of history at the University of Chicago and is working on Without Children: The History of Not Being a Mother, forthcoming from Seal Press.
Interesting, thought-provoking discussion that could be enriched with perspective from cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber’s 2001 book “Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood”
thank you for this thought provoking review and introducing me to Offill’s writing. we ‘older millennials’ frequently discuss these factors of isolated individualism in the face of systemic injustice, often predominantly, and I found this article useful and informative. may we all seek peace in solidarity despite the persistent turmoil of greed, envy, and ill-gains; tenets of the patriotism of individualism that defined my generation’s experience of life in a society of diminishing opportunities and zero-sum thinking.
I’m looking forward to reading this book now that I only found due to the reference to my work.
Thank you for that!
I’m going to put it in the review list for the Yellowhammer Fund Book Club.
Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.