Thursday, May 29, 2008

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

I was the less-than ideal reader for Rivka Galchen's first novel Atmospheric Disturbances, unequipped with referential tools necessary to place this book within its proper context. I've never read Borges, I don't even know how to say "Borges". And though I know how to say Pynchon, I've never read him either. I also only found out what "postmodernism" was three years ago, and sometimes I'm still not sure (though I take solace in the fact that you're probably not sure either).

And so the beginning of Atmospheric Disturbances was a bit tough on me, Galchen's narrator Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist, speaking exactly the way you'd think that the world's driest psychiatrist might. A driest psychiatrist under psychosis, for that matter. When he becomes convinced his wife Rema has been replaced by a simulacrum, the ensuing narrative has nothing of the lightness I might have expected from such a premise. Instead, for complicated reasons, Leo comes to suspect a meteorologist called Tzvi Gal-Chen is at the heart of this matter, and begins to explore Gal-Chen's work. Which doesn't make for easy reading, you might imagine, particularly as it is unclear whether Leo's own connections make sense, and so we are left to decipher and draw our own conclusions.

The book wasn't easy, but about 80 pages in, it became clear to me that the effort was worth it. And that Rivka Galchen was actually playing, in innumerable ways and most postmodernly. Leo's singular perspective an achievement, unflinching and impossible. We learn about him slowly, in bits and pieces from the world around him, as his own point of view reveals not much from "the consensus view of reality". Leo was probably never considered normal, but in his current state of mind, reality has twisted itself into a nightmare. Which, considering what a nightmare reality can be as straight as arrows, ensures layer upon layer of complexity.

For me the payoff was that each of these layers revealed something essential, important and surprising. Often something beautiful too, and at its very heart, this novel is a love song. From Galchen to her late father, who is the actual Tzvi Gal-Chan and, as Galchen says in her interview with BGB this novel was an excuse for her to write his name down over and over. I love that, and lines she blurs between fact and fiction, in a way that is analogous to Leo's whole perspective.

Love too, between Leo and Rema. This premise, of her supposed body snatching far more than just a premise, because when Leo looks at the simulacrum, he doesn't recognize his wife because of this woman's crows feet, her few extra pounds. That the person we fall in love with gets lost over time, and we have to find ways to fall in love over and over again, even the sanest of us, and how much is that ever possible?

Of course Atmospheric Disturbances works not just in the theoretical, also encompassing elements of mystery and adventure. The plot pushes forward, puzzling in multitudinous ways, but thoroughly engaging and delightful.