Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Disturbing Atmosphere

Atmospheric Disturbances / Rivka Galchen
Toronto : HarperCollins, c2008.
To Be Released May 27/08
(read as ARC)

This discombobulating first novel by Rivka Galchen is a striking portrait of a man suffering from a break with "consensual reality". It reminded me a little of the found poetry I was recently discussing, especially Karen Solie's science based poems, probably because I was reading both at the same time. In addition, however, part of the plot relies on the messages the characters think they are being sent within the academic papers of the late Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen, a meteorologist. Hidden meanings are discovered in an otherwise innocuous text.

It starts out with psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, who is convinced that the woman who has just entered his apartment is not really his wife, but a simulacrum. The first lines are:

Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife. This woman casually closed the door behind her. In an oversized pale blue purse—Rema’s purse—she was carrying a russet puppy. I did not know the puppy. And the real Rema, she doesn’t greet dogs on the sidewalk, she doesn’t like dogs at all. The hayfeverishly fresh scent of Rema’s shampoo was filling the air and through that brashness I squinted at this woman, and at that small dog, acknowledging to myself only that something was extraordinarily wrong.

The back story is slowly fleshed out for us, through the very unreliable narration of Dr. Leo himself. Leo has been counselling a patient named Harvey (shades of Chumley's Rest Home??) who suffers under the delusion that he can control the weather, as a secret agent for the Royal Society of Meteorology. Harvey also believes there is an underground guerilla group, the Quantum 49, trying to wrest power from the Society. Harvey disappeared frequently, to be found wandering about in other cities, alarming his mother and other family members. Since this occurred when he was 'given instruction' by the Society who sent him messages via page 6 of the New York Post, Dr. Leo (with the assistance of his wife Rema) comes up with a plan. They will choose a specific scientist to give Harvey instructions to stay in New York and keep an eye on the weather there. They choose, randomly, Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen,whose name they have seen in a list of fellows of the Royal Society. Leo and Rema start to act as Dr. Gal-Chen, but it all goes awry as Leo starts to believe in his patient's delusion, and then to question Rema's existence as well. Leo flees to South America, believing Harvey has gone there. Rema tracks him down at her mother's home in Argentina to attempt to convince him to come home.

This novel is extremely clever and well written, though it does demand concentration and full immersion in the ever increasing fantasies of Dr. Leo. I found it uncomfortable to read once Leo's perceptions became more warped and Rema's reactions were those of loyalty but also of helplessness at not being able to get through to Leo, to convince him that it was indeed the real Rema before him and not his cherished simulacrum. I could feel her exhaustion in the face of his assurance of being right, though to readers it is clear that something is not computing.

The novel has some self-referential quirks to it; Dr. Gal-Chen is actually the author's deceased father, who was a respected meterologist in life. There is a family photo included in the text as well. The ARC has blurbs from writers connected with Dave Eggers' The Believer, which didn't surprise me, as this novel reads as very much within that ethos. It's a good first novel, very intricate, with all its parts slowly revealing how they fit together. As for judging a book by its cover, I have to be honest, I really don't like this cover, it looks dreary and high schoolish to me. Don't let it put you off, though, this novel is provocative and unsettling, and worth a read.


  1. It sounds very curious, but one I would probably never pick up judged on the cover!

  2. I actually like the cover of the ARC better, but oh well.


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