Rivka Galchen’s riveting debut, Atmospheric Disturbances, toys with many of the traditional mystery-novel tropes and makes us question, yet again, what distinctions exist, if any, between so-called “literary” and “genre” fiction. Between art and not art. But this is no ordinary whodunit: there’s a whole lot more at work here, intellectually speaking, than you’ll find in those airport potboilers. Maybe it’s a kind of anti-mystery. As in some of Paul Auster’s most mind bending, early fiction, Atmospheric Disturbances brilliantly raises more questions than it answers. If anything, we know even less when it’s all over than we did when we started. But Galchen is no Paul Auster nor is she meant to be—she might be even better.
Our hero is Leo Liebenstein, a fifty-one-year-old New York psychiatrist “with no previous hospitalizations, and no relevant past medical, social, or family history” and an excessive fondness for cookies. His Argentine wife, Rema, has disappeared and been replaced by a nearly identical “impostress” or “simulacrum.” Only he can tell them apart, and the novel follows his tilting-at-windmills efforts to find the “real” Rema. He turns for help to one of his patients, an absinthe junkie named Harvey who believes himself to possess “special skills for controlling weather phenomena” and to work for a secret society known as the Royal Academy of Meteorology. Liebenstein does little to disavow him of these notions. The science of meteorology looms large in the novel, both literally and metaphorically. The noted meteorologist Dr. Gal-Chen—a relation of the author’s own fictional Doppelgänger?—could very well be involved in whatever has happened to Rema. He may also be dead, but that doesn’t prevent him from occasionally answering his email. As Liebenstein digs deeper into the apparent plot, it turns out that he may have bigger problems to deal with than a missing wife. His sleuthing takes him to Buenos Aires, where he rents a room from Rema’s estranged mother, Magda. His “fake” wife soon follows him, and she’s so convincing in her verisimilitude that, to Liebenstein’s consternation, Magda doesn’t even realize there’s been a switcheroo:
“I had miscalculated the internal error of the other observer I was observing; I should have know that a mother who has not seen her daughter for years, who so desperately wants to see her, well, one could put Kim Novak in front of her and she would likely ‘recognize’ her as her daughter, and it would all feel very right, and very profound, when really all that was being recognized would be a sense of recognition unhinged from its source, a misinterpretation of data, a forcing of facts into a model they didn’t match.”
Clues about Rema’s disappearance leak only gradually. Certain insights grow apparent to the reader even while the first-person narrator remains oblivious; those revelations make the novel at once comic and tragic. Galchen officiates over a happy, lasting marriage of humor and big ideas. Some elements of the story call Nabokov to mind (particularly his fascination with mirrors and doubling), others Murakami (Haruki, not Ryu) and Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker. Galchen has written a novel that is erudite, sad, hilarious, charming, puzzling, sad some more, and which may very well prove unforgettable.
Format: Hardcover, 256 pp.; Size: 5 1⁄2” x 8 1⁄4“; Price: $24; Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Editor: Eric Chinski; Book designer: Jonathan Lippincott; Typeface: Garamond 3; Number of books with “confession” in the title author read during composition: seven; Estimated amount of Tetley tea author consumed during composition: 370 gallons; Representative sentence: “I wouldn’t want certain concessions I’ve made to my current reality to undermine an accurate understanding of the predicament I was in, a predicament that gave me little choice other than to retreat into the kind of inventiveness that resembles deceit and/or psychosis.”