If you missed it, yesterday I posted Part 1 of my interview with Rivka Galchen, author of the exceptional debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances. Today’s final installment includes startling revelations by the author and an embarrassing faux pas by the interviewer. Read on…
BGB: Dr. Leo Liebenstein, your narrator, is a man of science – a very rationale person. Yet he has a very philosophical view of reality. At one point he refers to what we would call objective reality as the “consensus view.” He also seems very keenly aware of the limitations of human perception. These characteristics would seem to make Dr. Leo more susceptible to the delusions that he appears to suffer from. Conversely, these same characteristics may also make him more open to recognizing the type of conspiracy that he suspects that he has become involved in. The line between madness and “crackpot” genius is a fine one. I’ve alternated in firmly believing one interpretation of Dr. Leo’s state-of-mind over the other, and then switching back again, equally sure that this time I’ve got it all figured out. Was it difficult to maintain this ambiguity while writing the character of Dr. Leo? Did the scientist in you want to remove the ambiguity?
RG: Well, maybe I am of that variety of people who consider the search for absolute truth a vain and superstitious habit. That is, I have more faith in, and am more dedicated to, the project of finding new and better and more interesting ways to be wrong. (I mean, one could make the argument that the history of science, or the history of philosophy, is just that: an exciting evolution of differently incorrect ideas, of ideas not making the same old mistakes but instead new, unforeseen ones.) In this way, I never thought of Leo being right or wrong, or the reader as being right or wrong, I just thought it was a contest of different ways of being wrong, and which was more compelling at which moment. Maybe this is a smoke and mirrors answer in an unfair way. But it’s just like how scientific language can sometimes give that sense of elucidation at the very moment that it obscures, and vice-versa. Sometimes, in a certain context, an equation say, or an MRI, really does explain in a substantive way; but at other times, in other ways, these same things are really misdirections, some stealing away of the attention while in the other direction a rabbit is being stuffed into a top hat. After all, even something like the laws of gravity—it’s hard to articulate whether they really explain gravity or just describe it very lucidly. Neuroimaging and mental states—ill, aberrant, normal, all the labels are useful but nevertheless grossly insufficient—surely bear an even more muddled relationship to one another.
BGB: The novel also features a mysterious meteorologist named Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen. At first I thought that he was just a literary device since your last names are identical except for a hyphen. I was surprised to learn via Google Scholar that he was, in fact, a notable meteorologist with a significant body of research. (Whoa!) Is there any relation between yourself and the famed meteorologist?
RG:Yes, he’s my dad! He died 13 years ago. (When I got American citizenship–later than him–we got rid of the hyphen in my last name mostly because it caused endless clerical errors. I’m glad his name is slightly different though, it’s this chance thing, and yet emotionally spot on, because it’s a very ‘alternate’ Tzvi who is in the novel.)
And yes, well, there’s a lot of misdirected emotion in the novel, and likewise, the process of writing the book for me was like a kind of sublimation of my own emotions for my own lost love. In a sense the dead and, say, the person we were ten years ago—neither of those people are walking down the street tomorrow. They’re both gone forever. Or at least probably. Leo is on some level searching for a woman who no longer exists in his world, and I was, while writing, similarly ‘searching’ for someone who no longer exists in my world. Naturally my search sent me to my dad’s research, because that’s one of the few things that’s still here, and still just what it was when he was around. There’s also a mood in the novel—maybe I’ll call it a 70s mood—and it’s a mood, a set of interests, that kind of brings me back to who I myself used to be, who I was when I still had him around. So that’s two ghosts. The ghost of my dad, and the ghost of the former me, kind of collaborating, meeting up over these old science research papers.
BGB: Wow. That revelation adds so much depth to the story. My mind is blown. I have to go back and re-read the novel now. So is the picture of Tzvi’s family in the book really your 70′s vintage family? You’re the “little chub of a girl” in the “Bavarian” dress?!
RG: Yes, that is my family, and we think my dad looks the coolest in that photo. That’s one thing I love about fashion; it makes it quickly vivid how strange our normal in fact was all along, and must still be. I should admit though, I do love that dress I’m wearing there, and if I had a larger version, I would definitely wear it.
BGB: You mentioned the poetry of science earlier, and the idea that first came to mind for me is when scientists refer to “elegant” solutions. The bits of Dr. Gal-Chen’s research that you present in the novel are “elegant” in that they nicely echo the book’s themes. For example, the Initial Values Problem – that our ability to adequately model the future is limited by our ability to adequately measure and describe the current conditions – struck me as particularly apt. Can we really know one another – or even ourselves – with any certainty given the relatively small amount of information that we are presented with or can process at any one time? Or am I reading too much into that?
RG: Your mind is after my very heart; I, as you seem to have intuited, also can’t help but project all sorts of emotional value into scientific phrasings and concepts–can’t help but want to extend their analogical power. (Leo is similarly, though much more so, inclined.) Sometimes I think such projection is legitimate, sometimes not so much. But regardless, I’m always interested, even when it tells us more about the projector than about what’s being projected onto. Within the context of the novel, I’d say those science terms and methods fall somewhere along a spectrum between Rorschach blot and map of the world; somewhere between ‘every interpretation is real and valid and significant’, and ‘No, if you want to sail the Straits of Magellan, some map interpretations are significantly more valuable than others.’
I do think though, that science is this other language, and that, just like with any language, it has its turns of singular and untranslatable beauty; even if we aren’t fluent in the language, we can catch something of this.
BGB: In an interview that you conducted with Nathaniel Englander, you mention that although you are now friends, the two of you unknowingly wrote in the same Brooklyn coffee house for a time. Your novel and his wonderful The Ministry of Special Cases both discuss the disappeared in Argentina’s dirty war (yours less than his, obviously). Is that just a wonderful coincidence, or did some of what you were each working on seep into the other’s novel?
RG: The coffee shop isn’t in Brooklyn! The Hungarian Pastry Shop is here in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. (More on that below!)
As for the Argentina overlap, well, my longtime friend Shlomit, whose family is Argentine, insists she is the origin of Rema being from Argentina. But of course there’s also Borges. And his concept of “the South.” Which is where, mentally, I needed my narrator to go. So: lots of answers. Probably my friendship with Nathan isn’t as irrelevant as we like to imagine it is, although I knew him for a long time before I knew where his then-still-unfinished novel was set. Maybe the truest explanation is just that there was so much coverage of the economic shock down in Argentina right around when I started writing? Hard to say where notions come from.
BGB: The New York Observer recently printed a map of the literary hot spots in Brooklyn and the “literary 100″ – a list of the top literary players in the Borough. What’s the mood among Brooklyn writer’s about who made/didn’t make the list? Are you glad that the coffee shop that you write in was left of the map? Is there really a law that says that all writers are required to live in Brooklyn?
RG: Yeah, so like I said, the sad truth is that I don’t live in Brooklyn, which means that when I want to see almost any of my friends, I have to get on a subway for a solid 45 minutes in order to do so. (Result: a lot of my husband and I just renting DVDs, or, on wilder nights, going out for tacos on Amsterdam Avenue.) It does often seem that there can’t be more than seven writers (sign of apocalypse?) left on the island of Manhattan. I don’t think that’s actually true. But it’s true-ish. We probably have a chip on our shoulder around here. Maybe because we know that Brooklynites have much finer record collections than we do.
But as for what the true Brooklyn writers think about all this? Isn’t it part and parcel of the definition of being a hipster that you disdain hipsterdom and will have nothing to do with it? I imagine the Brooklyn writer scene is a similarly impossible set of all sets that do not contain themselves.
Well that’s embarrassing. I guess that she’s the exception that proves the rule that ALL writers live in Brooklyn. Oh the humiliation of it all.
More on Atmospheric Disturbances and Rivka Galchen can be found at these links of distinction: