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Atmospheric Disturbances

I recently read Atmospheric Disturbances, the new novel by Rivka Galchen. My cousin had read it and told me that it was a pretty odd book; it’s perhaps because of this that I wasn’t really sure how to take it, and because of this I ended up more or less trying to make it something it was not — which, in the end, the book resisted, and so finally disappointed me. This is too bad, because the book seems like a solid novel that is well written, fairly witty and moderately entertaining — it’s probably better than 9 out of 10 of the books sitting on the new releases table at your local corporate bookstore. Which may or may not be a testament to the industry’s ability to polish and market a given product.

The book is the narration of a psychiatrist, Leo Lebenstein, who wakes one morning convinced that his wife has been replaced by a woman who looks exactly like, but is not, her. He calls this double the “simulacrum.” This has the makings of an interesting narrative. But there is a schizophrenic aspect to Atmospheric Disturbances. It is as if Galchen could not fully decide whether she wanted to write something that was solidly surreal or fantastic, in the vein of Borges or Pynchon, or if she wanted to craft a clever Nabokovian puzzle. And so at first I took the odd premise of the book to be a fantastical riff on possible worlds and the multiverse, that would use the limit conditions of our possible reality to investigate more mundane things. Not exactly the sort of thing that I usually read, but hey, we all need a change of pace. By about a third of the way through the text, however, it becomes more or less clear that what we are working through is not fantasy or an imaginative exegesis of speculative physics; we are being told a story by a person who suffers from psychosis. The boundaries that will determine the limits of the narrative are the “consensus view of reality” to which the narrator appeals when he describes how he treats his patients.

The narrative’s return to this consensus view steals all sense of possibility from the text; once it is clear that this is what is going on much force is lost. Where before the central conceit of the text could be accepted as a (ornate, perhaps over-ornate) metaphor for an examination of a fairly banal event — the realization that our lover changes over time, that they may not in fact still be the person we fell in love with — now the central metaphor becomes the driving concern of the text itself. The conceit overwhelms the text, it turns in on itself, becomes a trivial game. Are we supposed to care about Dr. Leo? His travails are mildly amusing, in the manner of those confronting sitcom characters. But on the whole he does not elicit much interest — in me, anyway. And his relationships with his wife, his patients, etc, have the sort of unidimensionality that permeates most massproduct. Even the supposed doubling of meaning in the narrative — oh jeese, you know, he’s crazy — is contained within the closed parameters that define the text. Which does not make for rewarding engagement. You may take what the text offers, but you shouldn’t press to strongly against it or it will collapse.

Then there are other aspects of Atmospheric Disturbances that identify it as a product of the times. The self-conscious styling of the narrative, its jaunty postering, is, of course, very much done in recent young authorly style. It draws heavily on scientific analogies throughout, and then begins to undermine them as them as Leo is revealed as insane. As here, where he is drafting an email to a person he believes to be a dead meteorologist:

Is windchill analogous to Doppler Effect, I philosophized in a feeble to sound atmospherically savvy, but applied to the movement of heat rather than of light or sound? I thought about making a further analogy, to movements in human relationships, say, to interpersonal coldnesses that feel much colder than they actually are. But then I decided that might be too much, that might feel intrusive. 144-5

We can’t make these analogies. They are nonsensical. But then this slippage of analogies creeps back into the rest of the text, and cast doubt on the narrator’s statements about smiles, luggage, and vestigial DNA. Which would be fine if the overarching structure of the narrative did not confine itself to the really realist view of things, and if Leo weren’t really insane. But the closure of the narrative into its central conceit cheapens much of the reaching cleverness of Galchen’s metaphores.

Cinematic imagery and logic also runs throughout the text. As here, when Leo expresses his desire for flight in cinematic terms:

A fresh vision crept over me: myself at an airport desk, in much better shape and younger than I actually am, casually asking to be put on the “the next flight to Buenos Aires.” Hurried keyboard tapping, a negotiatory phone call, an underling being sent ahead to the gate to ask them to please hold the door! A seed of happiness in me: at the thought of being a player in some tragedy or comedy so much larger than myself. 71

His internalization here of the narrative logic of Hollywood films, all their little quirks and the false urgency and deference clerks to the Star, mirrors Atmospheric Disturbances internalization of the logic of its conceit. Leo wants to be a star, and in conveying him thus Galchen is part of a growing — mature? — aesthetic practice set in motion by the dominant position of cinema — its tropes and logic — in contemporary society. There are likely things to be or already said about this and its broader import.

A final characteristic of the novel worth taking note of is its engagement with the Critical Intellectual Product common to the humanities at the moment. This engagement ranges from the overt — the front of the book has a quote from Deleuze — to covert — we get passing references to Wittgenstein’s Tractactus — to whimsical, as when Lacan is described as a charlatan. There’s nothing particularly unique about this — all books make reference to their intellectual milieu, of course. But the milieu referenced here is that of current MFA and Humanities program fodder: the target audience of Atmospheric Disturbances is likely the graduates of such programs, those conversant in the intellectual product the use to propel themselves along. There are likely things to be or already said about this, as well.

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