Rivka Galchen’s novel Atmospheric Disturbances is an amazing debut. Though it clearly stands on its own merit, Galchen also brings a fascinating back story to the novel. The author majored in English at Princeton where she had Joyce Carol Oates as a thesis adviser. From Princeton, Galchen attended Mount Sinai where she received an MD, specializing in psychiatry. She then went to Columbia to get an MFA in creative writing. Somewhere in there, Galchen won a grant that allowed her the wherewithal to write this novel. (I feel like such a slacker.) What emerged may be the best possible synthesis of those experiences. Atmospheric Disturbances is a gem.
The novel is told from the perspective of Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist, who makes a sudden and unexpected discovery: “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Dr. Leo is unsettled by the appearance of his wife Rema’s doppelganger in his home. He begins to believe that a patient, Harvey, may hold the answer.
Harvey appears to be symptom-free to Dr. Leo, except for his belief that he works for a secret organization, The Royal Academy of Meteorology, which works in opposition to a rival underground agency, the 49 Quantum Fathers, to control the weather. Harvey’s alleged contact is a famed meteorologist, Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen. Dr. Leo begins to study the work of Dr. Gal-Chen while searching fro the “real” Rema and finds oddly relevant passages in the scientific journal articles.
Being a man of science, Dr. Leo is able to recognize the oddity of his beliefs, but he is also expertly equipped to rationalize it. For example, Dr. Leo is unwilling to accept that the simulacrum in his home is actually Rema purely on the basis of that having previously been the case:
I knew that my reasoning was post hoc, and another voice came in, mocking me, reminding me that post hoc reasoning is the consolation of the psychotic – all evidence interpreted under the shadow of the belief that one is Jesus Christ, or the King of Sweden, or made entirely of glass.
Dr. Leo’s search for answers leads him to Buenos Aries and Patagonia, believing himself to be “on assignment” for the Royal Society. Depending upon whether you believe Dr. Leo, he may or may not be breaking from what he calls the “consensus view” of reality. Is his head really in the clouds? (The author, mercifully, steers clear of this horrible pun.)
The novel uses several devices that some may call “post-modern” – all to good affect. For example, the use of what can be dense scientific language is no literary parlor trick. The articles that Dr. Leo excerpts about meteorological research problems highlight the issues that he is grappling with in subtle and unexpected ways. Also: The Royal Academy actually exists. The name of the rival top-secret weather controlling organization, 49 Quantum Fathers, appears to be a nod to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which also featured a mysterious controlling organization. Galchen also judiciously employs a few photographs and isopleth figures from scientific journal articles. There’s a lot going on in this novel.
And of course, Rivka Galchen herself studied psychiatry, so on some level Dr. Leo may be a stand in for the author. Only after reading the novel did I learn that the mysterious meteorologist Dr. Gal-Chen is not an interesting literary device that plays on the author’s name. Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen is the name of Rivka Galchen’s father, who was an actual published meteorologist. Viewed in this light, the novel takes on a whole new perspective. I went back and re-read several sections of the novel that were now open to brand new interpretations. I think that the book, at its heart, is a love letter to the author’s father, Tzvi.
What may seem on the surface to be a simple story about a man who may or may not have an interesting psychosis is a beautiful examination of our ability to truly know ourselves and those close to us. Atmospheric Disturbances made me think. It’s the kind of book that you want to talk to other people about as soon as you’ve finished. In a stroke of outrageous fortune, I was able to conduct a brief interview with Rivka Galchen. Part 1 of the interview will be posted tomorrow. I advise using the time between now and then to run out, pick up the novel, and get started reading. If you can’t wait, start with Chapter 1 and then read another selection. See you tomorrow.