On Jenny Offill’s Weather, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories, and Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft
I’m reading Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft right now, which samples one of the more famous bits of The Great Gatsby as an example of the transcendence possible through a detached, observant first-person narrator. “Its vanished trees,” Nick Carraway, toward the end of the novel, notes, “the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It’s a demonstration of what Scofield defines as “commentary” at its best. In a paragraph, a break between scenes, a liminal space that might serve a lesser writer as little more than a link, Fitzgerald sums up an age. Nothing is happening, strictly speaking—Nick is looking at some trees. At the same time, though, everything is happening. The purpose of The Great Gatsby has percolated. We have arrived at an epiphany, and Fitzgerald, smartly, has left us in the hands of a narrator uniquely suited to record it.
It’s also a marvel of a sentence, as almost all of Fitzgerald’s sentences are. And reading the other two books I read this week—Jenny Offill’s Weather and Fitzgerald’s Six Tales of the Jazz Age—I couldn’t help but notice how often I was picking up a pen. “It brought about one of those ghastly lapses in which two people who are in love pull up sharp, look at each other coolly, and think it’s all been a mistake,” Fitzgerald writes in “The Camel’s Back.” The observation is deft, beautiful both despite and because of its melancholy, and earned from me two brackets, one before, one after. Yes, and yes. Or, in Jenny Offill’s case, this bit, from the beginning of Weather:
When we worked together years ago, she always told me I had no game. She said this because allegedly you are not supposed to cut to the chase and ask your fellow dater to tell you about the time he was most soul-crushingly lonely. Allegedly this is not a best practice. But it makes a date so much less boring. Did you, did you, will you? I just want to know.
One bracket before, one after. And then a few underlines of the choicest lines in between. And then a fucking star in the margin, just in case future me misses the point. The pit Offill gestures at is deep, bottomless in a way Fitzgerald’s is not. But the beauty of both observations balances out their starkness. The reader is compelled to the edge, over which they are helpless to lean. And, in Offill’s case, to leap. Such is the power of truth.
Where Offill’s and Fitzgerald’s styles differ is in how they arrive at these crafted little language-bombs of truth. Fitzgerald, understandably, employs the more traditional approach, alternating scene and summary and interiority until the end, at which point all the props and backdrops of the narrative are pulled away, leaving us alone with his voice. Offill, by contrast, delivers a series of what Scofield would call “fragments”: glimpses into the life—and mind—of Lizzie, Weather’s chronically anxious narrator. Provided only snippets of scenes, we fill in the rest.
Fitzgerald—do I even need to write this?—is fantastic. Among the best of all time. But I think I prefer Offill, and will sooner revisit her (starting with Dept. of Speculation, which matches Weather in almost every regard), for two reasons. The first is simple: she speaks of and to our times. Fitzgerald was writing at a time when excess was not yet seen as empty. In 2020, the year Weather hit the (mostly virtual) shelves, the emptiness had already been widely documented; we watched as the world, for reasons largely preventable, stopped. We watched as California burned, and Texas froze, and Indonesia drowned. Or we spectated for some other, similar disaster. The doom she alludes to is coded into the consciousness of even the most dimly aware. So she does just that, and that only: allude to. Hint at. Omit. She does not need to sequence scenes as Fitzgerald does, build steadily and subtly to a moment of crisis, ease into a quiet sort of half-peace. The crisis is already there, from the start. The crisis is already here. All there is to do is react, and so this is all she does.
The second thing I like so much about Offill is her commitment to these fragments. Fitzgerald’s realism, after all, is traditional for a reason: realism, by definition, apes life. Action is followed by reaction is followed by reflection. On and on, and then the End. What Offill does is harder, I think. Within each fragment, interiority and action collapse into one thing. The things Lizzie does, what she says and what she thinks: they blend. It starts with her emails to the listeners of her mentor’s disaster psychology podcast, in which she struggles to strike the “obligatory note of hope.” Quickly, though, this internal struggle manifests in her life, and then in the lives of those she loves. Hence the narrative’s fractured, refractive nature. Fitzgerald tells us—even shows us—men and women collapsing under the pressures of the world. Offill performs this collapse. At least twice now, both in Dept. of Speculation and Weather, she’s captured an implosion with all its bright, prose-poem fragments glittering in mid-air, fire still licking at its core. And although I have little faith in the world, I have all the faith in the world that she’ll do it again.