Atmospheric Disturbances

By Rivka Galchen

Toronto-born (now New York-based) author Rivka Galchen’s first novel is a clever, stylish debut that foregrounds its postmodern literary credentials. The narrator is Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist who, as the novel begins, is entering his own world of paranoid delusion. Specifically, he imagines that his wife Rema has been replaced by a simulacrum. Somehow this domestic switch gets mixed-up with the imaginings of a patient of Dr. Leo’s named Harvey, concerning a conspiracy known as the 49 Quantum Fathers that is attempting to undermine the Royal Academy of Meteorology and control global weather patterns. Both Leo and Harvey think they are being contacted by deceased Academy meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen – the author’s real-life father (actual family photos are disturbingly included in the text).

There is a zaniness to the wide-ranging plot, taking Leo and Harvey all the way to Patagonia, that makes the more personal elements hard to take seriously. This is unfortunate because Galchen shows herself capable of doing wonderful things in this regard, as when Leo sees the wrinkles made in the bed covers Rema sits on turning into diagrams of force that correspond to fluctuations in his mood. Leo’s wilder fantasies are, paradoxically, more conventional stuff. The paranoid, unreliable first-person narrator has become a familiar figure in contemporary fiction, and there seems no way to play the doubling motif and all of the mirror imagery here with a light hand. Leo is also hard to warm to, intelligent and articulate but also nerdy, needy, and self-absorbed; not only cold but cruel in his remorseless pursuit of the “real” Rema. What Rema sees, or ever saw in him is hard to figure out.

The book is still a lot of fun, particularly in its playful manipulation of language. Rema speaks a slightly misdirected English while Leo is constantly mis-hearing words in a way that casts conversations into a sinister light. The spiraling plot, with Leo chasing an imaginary Rema while the real Rema chases him, moves along at a brisk pace. The fact that it is all a bit too quirky to be very involving doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2008.

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