Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My brother recently passed along this clip of Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell discussing the weather on the Daily Show. The formula is simple: parody myopic Fox News-style outrage by "debating" the weather. Conventional right-wing formulas on taxes ("Today [the government is] controlling the weather and tomorrow, who knows, federal income tax."), guns ("If tornadoes are outlawed, only outlaws will have tornadoes."), immigration ("Clearly we must close our borders to undesirable foreign weather."), drugs ("If people can't get tornadoes here, they're just going to go down to Mexico where there's no regulation at all."), and guns, again ("Tornadoes don't kill people. Flying debris kills people.") seem absurd when the topic is "weather" rather than, say, "the liberal agenda." The audience's reaction is telling: the first big laugh comes when Colbert and Carell start bleating "baad" and "goood" at one another. Arguing over whether the weather is "good" or "bad" seems about as useful as arguing over the virtues of breathing: it just is, so what's to argue about? That weather just is calls attention to the empty pretensions of media punditry (two words that Jon Stewart points out "mean almost nothing"), but haunting this parody is the suggestion that weather might in truth be just as "political" as taxes, guns, immigration, drugs and so on. It's not simply that weather mirrors politics, or that weather performs political work (destroying seats of power, defeating armies, "punishing" Florida counties implicated in the 2000 election debacle). As Hurricane Katrina made so appallingly apparent, the weather is "about" economics, class, culture, law, property, race, infrastructure, and any number of other things that we tend to consider far less inevitable than tornadoes. Understanding how exactly weather is "about" such things requires some work.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Two recent novels, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Lowboy by John Wray, revolve around clinically paranoid characters who are obsessed with the weather. Wray's Will "Lowboy" Heller is a paranoid schizophrenic teenager who, released from residential treatment and off his meds, spends most of a day and night on the New York subway; certain that global warming will end the world in a matter of hours, he becomes convinced that "cooling down" his own body will hold it off. To a homeless woman he meets on a subway platform, Lowboy says, 

I want to tell you something ... I want to tell you something about the world. ... Everyone knows what's happening to the air--what we're doing to the air, I mean. The air is changing every single minute. It's thickening and flattening and building up speed. The air is getting hotter every day. ... But everyone knows it's not happening on a straight line--not at all. The air is getting hotter on a curve.
He returns to these themes repeatedly over the course of the narrative: everyone knows the world is getting hotter. It's getting hotter on a curve. Later in the novel, in a free-associative monologue to his girlfriend, Emily, we learn that Lowboy discovered his role in global warming with the help of his psychiatrist:

How have you been feeling Will? he asked me. I'm fine Doctor but right now I feel just a little hot. ... Would you like me to modify your regimen? Is that something you might like? I shut my eyes and mouth I didn't answer. Beyond that there's not much I can do he said. The whole world's getting hotter they say. I opened my eyes and looked at him. The whole world's getting what? ... The world was in my body and my body was hidden deep inside the world. In its guts Emily. It was the most interesting thing. I could feel it getting hotter even on the coldest days the windows fogging up from the degrees.
Seizing on the doctor's offhand remark, Lowboy realizes that the world and his body enclose one another. ("When the feeling came on of Too Many Degrees I'd put snowballs in my hands to make it colder. ... This past January was The Coldest In Recent Memory I'm quoting from the New York Daily News.") If only he can cool down, "he could keep the world from ending."

I won't go into how he manages it. Lowboy is an exceptionally good novel right up to its disappointing conclusion, which makes the whole weather-and-paranoia thing seem suddenly gimmicky. I really don't think this is a gimmick. Pairing paranoia--the sense of an indeterminately significant surround--with (altered) weather makes sense. Will's belief that "the world was in my body and my body was hidden deep inside the world" illustrates a scalar anxiety that is native to weather and climate. What I like about Galchen's novel, which is not as tightly written nor as finely observant as Wray's, is that it takes this anxiety seriously. We are never quite certain if her narrator, Doctor Leo Liebenstein (also a psychiatrist), is mentally ill. We do know that one of his patients, Harvey, believes that he controls the weather in Manhattan (it's interesting that both novels take place there) on behalf of the Royal Academy of Meteorology.

Weather in Atmospheric Disturbances is both the content and form of paranoia. Like his patient directing winds on the Hudson, Leo comes to suspect that he may be at the center of the weather: "Maybe I am the proverbial butterfly." He reads his condition in fellow of the Royal Academy Tzvi Gal-Chen's theory of single Doppler radar, and sees in Gal-Chen's diagram of a storm images from his life. He describes his predicament as the "Dopplerganger Effect," a doubled distortion "that, properly understood, [might] enable a more accurate understanding of the real world."

The narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances, and by extension the reader, is immersed in a climate of such indeterminate significance. This meeting of weather and paranoia is Galchen's tacit acknowledgement that anxiety about climate is itself a kind of climate. Anxiety surrounds, as Freud suggests; climate takes on the uncertainty of the subject, or as Jakobson writes of metonymy, our understanding of climate is always "digress[ing] ... from the character to the setting." Thus the weather takes on the texture of Leo's mind. Or is it the other way around?