: atmospheric disturbances


The New Yorker
James Wood

Rivka Galchen’s (Toronto, 1976) first novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances” (Farrar, Straus), is being praised as Borgesian and Pynchonian, and certainly clutches at the frills of that lineage. (It is set partly in Argentina and makes reference to something called “the 49 Quantum,” or just “the 49.”) But it is more naturally seen as a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability. Like “Lenz,” the story opens simply and then, superbly, flakes. “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife” is how Dr. Leo Liebenstein begins his story. His wife, Rema, has apparently gone missing, and this substitute has taken her place. But when the woman evinces no intention of leaving, while her putative husband begins to refer to her as an “impostress,” a “simulacrum,” and “the ersatz Rema,” we suspect that it is Leo’s rationality that has gone missing, not his wife. The rest of the novel, despite various perky plot turns, is a relentless exploration of how a man could fail to see clearly the woman he loves.

Most first-person unreliability in fiction is reliably unreliable; rather mechanically, it teaches us how to read it, how to plug its holes. Double unreliability—or unreliable unreliability—is rarer, and more interesting, because it asks much more of the reader. Galchen, a playful writer, delights in having Leo tell us, for instance, that, while Harvey is clearly delusional, the Royal Academy of Meteorology is “an institute whose existence a consensus view of reality actually would (and this surprised me at the time) affirm.” In reality—that is, in our world—there is no academy by that name. But the novel wants to disturb any sense of what might constitute “a consensus view of reality,” the better to depict the instabilities of a perforated mind. Leo has, perhaps, a version of Capgras syndrome, whose victims come to think that an impostor has replaced a family member or friend. But whereas, say, Richard Powers’s most recent novel, “The Echo Maker,” is explicitly about the phenomenology of this delusion, complete with a barrage of neurological facts, Galchen’s novel more boldly denies us the comfort of a conclusive explanation. “Atmospheric Disturbances” is a novel of consciousness, not a novel about consciousness.