Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric disturbances is one of my favorite novels of the year so far, and will certainly sit at or very near the top of my year end “best of” list. (Check out my review of the novel and my interview with the author.) I’ve been reading all of the reviews that I come across with interest, and I’ve been a little baffled.
Leisl Schillinger gave the novel a glowing review in this week’s New York Times Book Review. Schillinger compares Galchen to “…Jonathan Lethem, Franz Kafka, Primo Levi and Thomas Pynchon. But she also, quite deliberately, echoes the Argentine giant Jorge Luis Borges.” However, I was puzzled by this phrase:
Although she has intellectualized and mystified her subject, intentionally obscuring it in a dry-ice fog of pseudoscience, the emotional peaks beneath her cloud retain their definition.
Actually, Galchen uses actual published scientific articles by her father, Tzvi Gal-Chen as metaphors for the protagonists views of reality. Not pseudoscience.
In another review, a New York Sun reviewer writes:
Every time we read the name — and it appears more and more often as Leo starts to believe his own lie, convincing himself that Tzvi holds the key to Rema’s disappearance — we are reminded of the fictionality of Ms. Galchen’s world. “Gal-Chen” is like the author’s wink to the reader, delivered over the heads of the characters, reminding us that after all this is just a novel, a made-up story.
The name Gal-Chen is more than a wink at the reader. Once the reader understands that Tzvi Gal-Chen is the author’s actual father (deceased), it adds a layer of devastating emotion to the story.
In an otherwise glowing Bookforum review, the reviewer writes:
To attempt to follow the clues in this novel is to engage in a fruitless exercise, like trying to climb the stairs in an Escher woodcut. She’s not there, and you can’t find her that way, anyway. As Liebenstein tacks back and forth in increasingly paranoid circuits through his inner and outer worlds—there are diagrams in this novel, found photographs, and a drawing of the Doppler effect—a weight, beautifully, accumulates in the white space.
Man, oh, man. If you don’t follow those clues, you miss half the point of the novel. The pictures are not “found”, but actual childhood photographs of the author’s family. The diagrams and drawing are from Tzvi Gal-Chen’s published works. Follow the clues…
I’m left wondering how these professional reviewers missed out on the what Galchen was doing in this novel… And I’m left blaming Marisha Pessl. Pessl’s Special Topics In Calamity Physics (which I loved) uses pictures, pseudoscience, and fake journal citations to advance her story. There seems to be feeling among some reviewers that when those devices appear to present themselves, the reader need look no further. It’s just clever post-modernism, a là Pessl. In this case, all it takes is a quick Google search to reveal that Tzvi Gal-Chen is a real person, and the rest quickly follows. To be fair, I didn’t connect some of the dots until I quizzed the author. Then again, I’m not paid for my opinion either. Maybe I’ve become too invested in this book. I do that. I’ll move on now.
The noted critic James Wood reviews Atmospheric Disturbances for The New Yorker.
The Believer says: “…Galchen is no Paul Auster nor is she meant to be—she might be even better.”
Author Heidi Julavits reviews the novel for the Edmonton Journal review
The Brooklyn Rail interviews the author.