Review: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

While browsing some piles of my reading backlog on my shelf – books I had purchased left unread for a year or so – I picked up this book, which begins with the curious sentence: “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Intrigued, I sat and read the first couple of pages and thought, “I must read this.” Sadly, I have to report that the book does not live up to its promise.

As much as this book is ingenious, clever, unique, at times lyrical and philosophical, I regret to say that it’s painfully tedious. At 240 pages, there is simply no momentum, no capacity for progressive development. The relationships have no plausibility. There is not enough plot, not enough real life. The main character does not read believably as a middle-aged man. His mental life does not hang together as a genuine possibility. Events do not seem real. While reading I kept feeling like I was counting grains of sand, or sifting through cookie crumbs, or maybe sinking in quick sand, that I finished it in 5 wearisome days. Although the amusing, clever gems kept coming, Atmospheric Disturbances didn’t “disturb” me, didn’t create a palpable world I could or cared to enter into.

When the protagonist (and first person narrator), a New York psychiatrist named Leo Liebenstein, arrives at his conclusion about his “disappeared” wife, he is also dealing with a patient, Harvey, who believes that he is receiving secret orders from the Royal Academy of Meteorology in controlling the worlds weather. Leo’s “false” wife, Rema, whom he refers to repeatedly in the novel as “the simulacrum,” suggests that he pretend to be an agent of the Academy as well, transmitting directions from a meteorologist named Tsvi Gal-Chen. The relationship between this therapeutic fraud and Leo’s search for the real Rema are the crux of Galchen’s first novel.

Atmospheric Disturbances chronicles the increasingly irrational behavior of its protagonist as he attempts to track down and recover his real wife following her mysterious replacement one night by a doppelganger. Here’s my gripe: instead of spending most of her focus and attention to build up the reader’s empathy with (or at least sympathetic understanding of) her protagonist, before finally making you aware of just how far from any understanding or real empathy you are, Rivka Galchen engages you mostly with the puzzle that her protagonist is himself battling to solve.

The central puzzle afflicting the clinical psychiatrist is essentially the unexplained disappearance of his wife, Rema, and her replacement with a simulacrum which he only recognizes as not being the real Rema. The story-line elucidates this puzzle through various bizarre complexities, most of which revolve on Leo’s conviction that his wife’s disappearance must be linked to the disappearance of one of his own psychiatric patients, Harvey, and the particular details of Harvey’s delusions (or “deviations from the consensus view”, as Leo is careful to call them) that he has supernatural powers, enabling him to control various aspects of the weather, as a result of which he is frequently sent on secret assignments, communicated to him via coded messages in the New York Post, on behalf of the Royal Academy of Meteorology in their on-going struggle across various parallel universes against the machinations of the “49 Quantum Fathers.”

I fear, though, that in presenting Leo’s predicament as her main subject, with the steps taken to resolve it seemingly supplying the central story-arc, Galchen may have set a trap for herself – or rather for me, as a reader, who expected this puzzle to be played out and solved (or at least explained) by the end of the book. I tried to force myself to care for Leo, but I was sadly disappointed that I didn’t manage to pick out the real subject or story-line of the book along the way. I expected the book to offer any explanations or revelations beyond the issues it turns over (or more accurately, I suppose, mulls over) as it progressed, and I was just bewildered.

There are times when Atmospheric Disturbances can be extremely bewildering if you do not work to keep up. And Galchen really does expect you to work hard and to keep up mostly on your own. She does not go back to rescue you if you fall by the wayside and lose focus. Perhaps the book’s strength lies not so much in where it goes, as in the countless ambiguities and possibilities for digressions that it throws up for you (as well as the protagonist) along the way.

If you’re a reader who looks forward more to the story rather than the storytelling techniques, you’d be disappointed. There is virtually no story here, in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, what it does is to peg on to its story-line a series of explorations of many things, without ever connecting any of them explicitly, leaving you to connect the dots as you see fit – a kind of narrative equivalent of the psychologist’s Rorschach ink-blot. It is a book that revels in the (often seemingly pretentious) poetry that is to be found in specialist scientific writings and which explores the potential of what happens when one re-attaches emotional significance but reduced understanding of the specifics, to a scientific phraseology which is supposedly devoid of emotion and which expects a high level of understanding of the specifics of its subject matter. Galchen in this novel took epistemic subjectivism, or perspectivism, as her psychological stance, exploring love, loss, and people’s feelings about their place in the world, while attempting to expose as bogus any notion that there is in fact such a thing as a reality which we all must accept and which is necessarily the same for everyone.

Atmospheric Disturbances wants to be playfully cerebral, but in fact it is neither atmospheric nor disturbing. Perhaps reading Borges or expository philosophy on these subjects would have been more rewarding.

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One thought on “Review: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

  1. Pingback: Currently Reading May 8, 2012 | Consilient Interest

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