It's almost a cliché by now to expect debut novels, especially by recent MFA graduates, to be autobiographical in nature. First-time novelist Rivka Galchen, however, bucks that trend in a big way with her debut, ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES.
Galchen's protagonist is a far cry from that "single girl about town" we're used to (and maybe a little tired of) seeing from the pen of young female novelists. Instead, she chooses to focus on Leo Liebenstein, a middle-aged psychiatrist living in Manhattan with his Argentinean wife, Rema. Rema is an attractive younger woman, and Leo (not to mention the reader) spends much of the book wondering what Rema sees in him. In fact, his paranoid conviction that Rema has a lover (or lovers) on the side is one of the first signs that things might be not quite all right with Leo.
Leo and Rema's marriage becomes intertwined with one of Leo's patients, Harvey, a schizophrenic who becomes convinced that he is a secret agent of the Royal Academy of Meteorology (and its covert division, the 49 Quantum Fathers), receiving encoded messages via Page Six of the New York Post, secret documents that instruct him how to control the weather. Rema persuades Leo to humor Harvey's delusion by posing as a secret agent himself, one who is in contact with Academy meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen, a real figure who comes to hold great significance within Leo's life, as well as Harvey's.
Leo and Rema's deception takes on a life of its own, however, when Leo becomes convinced that the woman who comes home one night is not, in fact, Rema, but instead is a "simulacrum" of his wife. Using the language and theories of meteorology, Leo dubs her a "Dopplergänger." Increasingly disturbed and agitated by the simulacrum's presence, her apparent mastery of Rema's mannerisms and history, and the inability of anyone else to recognize the imposter, Leo abruptly leaves for Argentina, Rema's homeland (and the site of a significant paper by Tzvi Gal-Chen), hoping that he can find answers to his dilemma there. As Leo is drawn deeper into his conspiracy theories and scientific hypotheses, however, readers will begin to wonder whether the world --- or Leo himself --- is out of whack.
Reading ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES is a bit unsettling, and the novel --- with its unreliable narrator, shifting sense of reality and forays into meteorological theory, philosophy and psychiatry --- may make readers feel at times as disoriented as Leo himself. Those who delve beneath Leo's disquieting narrative, however, will have the pleasure not only of a challenging reading experience but also a lovely meditation on identity and the mysteries of love. Why do we love whom we do? Why and how can the people most familiar to us also seem the most unknowable?
Rivka Galchen's idiosyncratic approach to blending science and fiction was hinted at in her short story "The Region of Unlikeliness," published in The New Yorker in early 2008. With ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES, Galchen's original vision is more fully explored. A psychiatrist by training who recently earned her MFA, Galchen confidently, and provocatively, incorporates the language of science in general, and psychiatry in particular, into her narrative. And, as for that autobiographical first novel, maybe there's something to it after all: Galchen's late father, a pre-eminent meteorologist, was named Tzvi, and her own 1970s-era family photos appear in the novel. Just one more twist and turn for lucky readers to ponder.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 22, 2010