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Book Reviews

Atmospheric Disturbances
Our Keen Blue House

Contributor's Notes


Book Review: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

Jamie May

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hardcover, 240pp.

What we call madness might also be termed “conflict with the consensus view of reality”–so says Dr. Leo Liebenstein, MD, licensed psychiatrist and the narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances. I take Leo’s advice with a grain of salt, since he’s more than a little nuts himself. Nevertheless, I count three conflicting views of reality in Rivka Galchen’s first novel, not all equally valid but all with points in their favor, and only one having anything like a basis in consensus. The interplay and interference between them promises, and delivers, something like the uncanny, literary thrill readers of Nabokov enjoy in Lolita and Pale Fire–the thrill of a pattern of coincidences within the world of a work that demands an explanation from outside it.

So, the three views of reality. First, Leo’s. It’s clear to him that his wife, Rema, has disappeared and been replaced by a doppelganger. Though the doppelganger has her own charms, he loves his wife. He misses her. He must find her. His search takes him from his apartment in Manhattan to Rema’s childhood home in Buenos Aires, involves him in what may be a weather-war (you’ll have to read the book to find out what that means) between the Royal Academy of Meteorologists and a shadowy organization known as the 49 Quantum Fathers, and requires him to interpret a set of hidden signs and symbols communicating the wisdom and intentions one Tzvi Gal-Chen.

In Rema’s view–and this is the consensus view, the view that most clearly reflects what is “really going on” in the world of the book–something is very wrong with Leo. If she were a psychiatrist like him, she would easily be able to diagnose his problem as Capgras syndrome, whose sufferers believe someone close to them has been replaced by an impostor. Since Leo narrates the novel, her actions and intentions only filter through to the reader via his warped reasoning, so one of the many pleasures the book offers is figuring our just what she’s thinking. The picture that emerges is of a woman who, to save her marriage, must chase her husband across the globe, confront relationships and resentments she’s attempted to abandon in Argentina–and work out why Leo seems to be receiving e-mail from a meteorologist named Tzvi Gal-Chen.

As for the third view–that one’s the kicker. It’s not a view accessible to any of the characters within the fictional world, only to readers who know they’re in the midst of a novel by Rivka Galchen, whose last name is eerily similar to Tzvi’s. Who, when a photograph of Tzvi with his family is reproduced in the text, note the resemblance between the little girl Tzvi’s wife is holding and the author photo on the back flap. Who, when Tzvi concludes a response to one of Leo’s questions about meteorology, “Nice that you’re interested. Love, Tzvi,” think–“Doesn’t that sound more like something he would write to his daughter?” In short, as the pages turn, the book insinuates more and more strongly that Leo’s obsession with Tzvi is being controlled and directed by a force beyond his ken–a force named Rivka Galchen.

To my mind, Atmospheric Disturbances is essentially a book about loss: Leo’s loss of the “real” Rema, Rema’s loss of her past in taking up with a new man in a new country, and Galchen’s own loss, which I’ll let readers discover for themselves. And in the end, it’s this sense of multiplying losses, not any drive towards virtuosity or postmodernity for their own sake, that justifies the novel’s portrayal of an author mucking around in the lives of her characters.

Borges once wondered, “Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet?” He thought he knew the answer: “these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work may be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.” Thus Borges pictured human history as an infinite chain of fictional characters, all reading each other and being read in turn–a vision of reality that’s sometimes reassuring and sometimes terrifying.

Why, then, does it move us that Leo Liebenstein’s delusions about the loss of his wife should be controlled and patterned by Rivka Galchen? It must be because it suggests that if a character’s fictional experience of loss can emanate from the real losses of his author, then that author’s real experiences of loss may be the emanation of some other, unknown bereavement–and so on and on, down the line to infinity. What makes Galchen’s achievement really significant is that this is true to the experience of losing someone you love. When the loved one’s absence seems so tremendous that it couldn’t possibly be the result of just a single person going missing–what can you conclude then, except that the loss you feel is the absence left by an uncountable number of people disappearing from an uncountable number of lives?