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A review of Atmospheric Disturbances: A Novel, by Rivka Galchen. Harper Collins Canada, 2008.

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This debut novel by Rivka Galchen opens with the realization by the middle-aged psychologist Leo Liebenstein that his wife Rema has been replaced by an identical double:

Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.

And so begins the strange and quixotic journey by Leo to recover his wife, whom he thinks may or may not have been abducted by a secretive society called the 49 Quantum Fathers (a sly allusion, perhaps, to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49). Given this premise (and the blurbs on the jacket), one may be lulled into thinking that this is an unusual tale of speculative fiction. But is soon becomes clear that the substitute Rema is the real Rema, and that Leo is suffering from some type of delusion. And as Leo falls deeper into this delusion, he becomes convinced that an elusive meteorologist named Tzvi Gal-Chen holds the key to the disappearance of his wife. Throughout the story, Leo seems oddly aware of the possibility of his own psychosis, and this realization, along with his self-diagnoses, propel the narrative of much of the book.

There are several things one immediately notices about this fascinating and unconventional novel. One is Galchen’s moulding of the normally rigid discourse of science into the metaphoric discourse of creative writing, often in very clever and poetic ways. For example, she refers to the Rema situation as “the Initial Value Problem”, and chapter titles include “Measured radiances at various frequencies” and “A method of calculating temperature, pressure, and vertical velocities from Doppler radar observations”. Along with the scientific metaphors are actual excerpts from published journals, along with photographs of Tzvi Gal-Chen and his family (which, it turns out, is the author’s family). The clever use of language is prominent throughout, and things are often described in multiple ways. For example, Rema is never just described as Rema by Leo; instead, he randomly describes her as the double, the simulacrum, the doppelganger, ersatz Rema, and the blond, among other qualifiers. This is not calling things by their proper names! These postmodernisms may turn off some readers, but Galchen is selective and not too overbearing in their use, and they complement rather than distract from the narrative.

Another pleasing aspect of this book is the ambiguity of the narrative. There is ambiguity in remembered details: a sweater described as orange in one part of the narrative is described as blue in another. There is ambiguity in characterization: Leo’s patient Harvey seems real in the early part of the book, and perhaps not so real in the latter part; likewise, Harvey is undoubtedly described as a male character in the first half, but displays strangely feminine characteristics in the second half. There is ambiguity in the narrative: Leo’s interactions (at a distance) with Tzvi seems appear real at some points, then appear to be fabrications at others; likewise, the story of Rema’s mother and her past also becomes gradually ambiguous as the novel progresses. The effect of all this ambiguity is a skillful blurring of reality and delusion, particularly during the latter half of the novel.

However, it is during this latter half that the narrative begins to lag a little. It would have been nice to see a more balanced interplay of reality and delusion here, and a bit more ambiguity concerning what was real and what was not. But this is a minor complaint, and does not detract from the overall positive impression of the book, which despite its fascinating handling of philosophical and psychological issues such as identity, reality, and delusion, is ultimately a story of love, and of love and abandonment. Atmospheric Disturbances is a compelling, quirky, and frequently humorous study of encroaching psychosis and its effects on the mind, love, and relationships.

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