American Innovations

By Rivka Galchen

Rivka Galchen, who was shortlisted for both the Writers’ Trust and Governor General’s Awards for her debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances, shows that she is also an accomplished short story writer with this excellent collection.

The voice is typical of a manner of short story writing that has become the mainstream; unsurprising given that many of these stories first appeared in one of the premier publishers of new short fiction, The New Yorker, and that Galchen is a graduate of the creative writing program at Columbia University, where she now teaches.

That New Yorker voice is characterized by a conversational smoothness and flow, allied with an observant, intelligent eye and easy wit. One can never be sure what direction things are going to go in because the pieces have no linear story to tell but rather proceed through free association, dreams, memory, and seemingly obscure cues and clues. In some stories, such as “Once an Empire,” the link is made explicitly to dreaming, the narrator’s bizarre sequence of thoughts likened to a “gentle bull . . . helplessly charging at the sight of red.” But even the more realistic pieces tend to let go and drift. The story “Dean of the Arts” is launched with a nod to the power of serendipity (“I owe to the convergence of boredom and an atavistic attraction to the color gold the discovery on a near-empty shelf in my childhood home . . .”) and then takes us on a trip to Mexico City that turns into a rabbit hole of fictions, dreams, and false memories.

The protagonists are mostly young women of loose personal attachments (even the occasional spouse is pushed far into the background). They are deadpan, wary of emotion, and self-absorbed without being particularly self-aware or introspective. Like the stories themselves, they tend to drift, avatars of wandering cool experiencing anti-epiphanies that function more as punctuation than revelation. Even the allusions to stories by other writers are glancing: meant to be noticed but without a lot of deeper resonance.

In all of this Galchen shows herself to be not just a writer of her generation but a credible interpreter of her world. If that’s a world of disconnection and entropy, it is nevertheless rendered with charm, a sense of wonder, and honesty.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, May 2014.

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