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Atmospheric Disturbancesby Rivka Galchen
In Rivka Galchen's incredibly impressive debut novel, Dr. Leo Liebenstein tries to unravel the mystery of his missing wife and her "replacement," who looks almost exactly like her. Funny, heartbreaking, absurd, and extraordinarily intelligent, this Borgesian psychological mystery is uniquely and utterly satisfying.
Synopses & Reviews
When Dr. Leo Liebenstein's wife disappears, she leaves behind a single, confounding clue: a woman who looks, talks, and behaves exactly like her — or almost exactly like her — and even audaciously claims to be her. While everyone else is fooled by this imposter, Leo knows better than to trust his senses in matters of the heart. Certain that the original Rema is alive and in hiding, Leo embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim his lost love.
With the help of his psychiatric patient Harvey — who believes himself to be a secret agent who can control the weather — Leo attempts to unravel the mystery of the spousal switch. His investigation leads him to the enigmatic guidance of the meteorologist Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen, the secret workings of the Royal Academy of Meteorology in their cosmic conflict with the 49 Quantum Fathers, and the unwelcome conviction that somehow he — or maybe his wife, or maybe even Harvey — lies at the center of all these unfathomables. From the streets of New York to the southernmost reaches of Patagonia, Leo's erratic quest becomes a test of how far he is willing to take his struggle against the seemingly uncontestable truth he knows in his heart to be false.
Atmospheric Disturbances is at once a moving love story, a dark comedy, a psychological thriller, and a deeply disturbing portrait of a fracturing mind. With tremendous compassion and dazzling literary sophistication, Rivka Galchen investigates the moment of crisis when you suddenly realize that the reality you insist upon is no longer one you can accept, and the person you love has become merely the person you live with. This highly inventive debut explores the mysterious nature of human relationships, and how we spend our lives trying to weather the storms of our own making.
"In this enthralling debut, psychiatrist Dr. Leo Liebenstein sets off to find his wife, Rema, who he believes has been replaced by a simulacrum. Also missing is one of Leo's patients, Harvey, who is convinced he receives coded messages (via Page Six in the New York Post) from the Royal Academy of Meteorology to control the weather. At Rema's urging, Leo pretends during his sessions with Harvey to be a Royal Academy agent (she thinks the fib could help break through to Harvey), and once Re- ma and Leo disappear, Leo turns to actual Royal Academy member Tzvi Gal-Chen's meteorological work to guide him in his search for his wife. Leo's quest takes him through Buenos Aires and Patagonia, and as he becomes increasingly delusional and erratic, Galchen adeptly reveals the actual situation to readers, including Rema's anguish and anger at her husband. Leo's devotion to the 'real' Rema is heartbreaking and maddening; he cannot see that the woman he seeks has been with him all along. Don't be surprised if this gives you a Crying of Lot 49 nostalgia hit. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Rod Serling, strolling through some ghastly gallery of distorted portraits, should introduce Rivka Galchen's first novel. "Atmospheric Disturbances" takes place in the twilight zone of Leo Liebenstein's highly rational but utterly deluded mind. He's a middle-aged psychiatrist confounded by a strange problem: "A woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife," he tells us on the opening... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) page. "Same everything, but it wasn't Rema." This "impostress" or "simulacrum," as he refers to her throughout the novel, looks exactly like his young wife, imitates her Argentine accent perfectly and possesses all her memories and attitudes. But he knows she isn't Rema. "Something was extraordinarily wrong," he explains. "It was just a feeling, that's how I knew." Because he loves her, "obviously and entirely and singularly," he tells us, "I had to go and search for the real Rema." This sounds weird, of course, and it is — deliciously so — but on another level, it's common: After all, lots of people eventually conclude that their spouse isn't the person they once married. What husband, in a petty moment, hasn't shared Leo's cruel appraisal: "It would seem Rema was being played by someone older, or who at least looked older. Someone pretty, but not as pretty." What Galchen has done is play out that sad realization in the mind of a psychotic psychiatrist, a man thoroughly versed in others' delusions but unable to perceive his own. The result is a steady descent into madness confidently reinforced by the methods and language of science. There are a few diagrams, a formula now and then, and some references that will remind you of things you've forgotten from high school. In fact, if you plot "Atmospheric Disturbances" on a piece of graph paper — the kind of pseudo-scientific approach Leo would recommend — you'll notice a trend line running through recent novels such as Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" and Samantha Hunt's "The Invention of Everything Else." These brilliant young women infuse their stories with the language and tropes of scientific disciplines. They manage to appropriate the mystique of science, producing novels that seem somehow grounded in fundamental laws, even while satirizing the confident function that science plays in modern life. Galchen received a medical degree with an emphasis in psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a background that allows her to describe Leo's professional life as convincingly as she describes his descent into psychosis. Wandering around New York looking for his "real" wife, Leo challenges our objections in the most self-assured but absurd ways: "Why should I believe, just by fiat, that this woman was Rema, when that ran contrary to the phenomenology?" True to his academic training, he throws himself into systematic research with appropriate "experimental controls." This amounts to sitting in the library and writing random words on notecards: "HERONS," "WOOL PROCESSING," "HERMOCHROMATOSIS." Guffaw if you will, but he won't be dissuaded: "The way I proceeded with my investigation might cause me to lose credibility before mediocre minds," he admits. "I wasn't actually developing the detachment of a disordered psychotic — I just wanted to concentrate, to stick to the business at hand." What remains so unsettling, and often funny, about Leo is the way his intelligent observations slip into looniness. This tendency is most dramatically on display during his psychological treatment of a young man with "a fixed magical belief that he had special skills for controlling weather phenomena." In a misguided attempt to limit the man's dangerous behavior, Leo poses as a meteorologist — Tzvi Gal-Chen, chosen at random from a list of leading scientists. This unorthodox technique appears to work at first, but very quickly Leo is caught in his patient's fantasy and becomes convinced that the real Gal-Chen must have something to do with the disappearance of his wife. The novel's central, twisted metaphor revolves around Gal-Chen's work with Doppler weather radar. Leo clearly and correctly explains its operative principle as "the change perceived by an observer who is, relative to the wave source, in motion," such as the rising pitch of the sound of an approaching car. "Doppler effect refers to these distorted perceptions," he says, "and Doppler radar's utility relies on savvy interpretations of these distortions that, properly understood, enable a more accurate understanding of the real world." So far, so sane, but then suddenly Leo applies this phenomenon to his perception of his wife: "Let us imagine a source from which a Rema look-alike emerges every second. If the source is stationary, and I am stationary, then every second one of these Remas will pass me by." In one of the novel's innumerable loopy but cerebral moments, Leo announces what he calls the "Dopplerganger effect." There are other, darker puns and doubles lurking in these pages, though their intention isn't always clear. The second half of the novel, for instance, takes place in Argentina, where the search for someone who has disappeared echoes the country's tragic recent history. And though there's no clue of it in the book, the author's father, who died in 1994, was a meteorologist named Gal-Chen. All of this is impressively clever, but it's hard to sustain over the course of an entire novel, even a short one like this. Once you've laughed at Leo's psychotic tics a few times, they grow more familiar than funny. But just when the joke seems to have played out, when we've comfortably distanced ourselves from this ridiculous man, Galchen concludes with Leo's quiet, heartbreaking plan for the future. After all his craziness, it's a startling reminder of how ordinary his case is. How many perfectly sane people trudge along, hoping they can learn to love the stranger in the house — or find the person they married? Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] dense, brilliant novel....Highly recommended." Library Journal
"A superb first novel." Kirkus Reviews
"Achingly beautiful." Entertainment Weekly
"The story is genuinely suspenseful....Ms. Galchen is a writer to be watched." The Economist
"Rivka Galchen has written a powerful novel about love, longing, Doppler radar, and the true appreciation of a nice cookie with your tea. Atmospheric Disturbances is fantastic." Nathan Englander, author of The Ministry of Special Cases
"Reader, you are holding in your hand one of my favorite novels ever: Rivka Galchen's divinely hilarious, heartbreaking tale of Leo's search for his 'lost' wife Rema. This is a novel of Borgesian erudition, wit, and playfulness, though its obsessively pursued subject — as it rarely was in the Argentine's fiction — is love, the enraptured lover, and the mystery of the beloved, the intersection of love's fictions, realities, and pathologies. It is also as funny as any episode of the Simpsons (imagine Homer as a besotted and brilliant New York psychiatrist). The prose jumps with one astonishing observation, insight, and description after another, Atmospheric Disturbances delivers unforgettable joy." Francisco Goldman, author of The Divine Husband
"Erudite and chock-full of heartache, Rivka Galchen's virtuosic 'debut' novel reads like the work of a cutting-edge literary alchemist who has created in her laboratory the Book of the Now. Part thriller, part romance, part autobiography, part psychological study, her book's sweetly skewed brilliance and stealth-bomb sadness will make you swoon with this realization: yes, these kinds of books are still possible." Heidi Julavitz, author of The Uses of Enchantment
"[A] skillful exploration of the blurry lines between reality and imagination." Dallas Morning News
At once a moving love story, a dark comedy, a psychological thriller, and a deeply disturbing portrait of a fracturing mind, this highly inventive debut explores the mysterious nature of human relationships.
Thirteen hilarious, moving, and beautifully brutal stories by David Gordon, the award-winning author of Mystery Girl and The Serialist.
In these funny, surprising, and touching stories, Gordon gets at the big stuff — art and religion, literature and madness, the supernatural, and the dark fringes of sexuality — in his own unique style, described by novelist Rivka Galchen as “Dashiell Hammett divided by Don DeLillo, to the power of Dostoyevsky — yet still pure David Gordon.”
Gordon's creations include ex-gangsters and terrifying writing coaches, Internet girlfriends and bogus memoirists, Chinatown ghosts, and vampires of Queens. “The Amateur” features a cafe encounter with a terrible artist who carries a mind-blowing secret. In the long, beautifully brutal title story, a man numbed by life finds himself flirting with and mourning lost souls in the purgatory of sex chatrooms. The result is both unflinching and hilarious, heartbreaking and life-affirming.
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Salon.com Top Ten Book of the Year
A Plain Dealer (Cleveland) Best Book of the Year
A Slate Best Book of the Year
When Dr. Leo Liebenstein's wife disappears, she leaves behind a single confounding clue: a woman who looks, talks, and behaves exactly like her. A simulatcrum. But Leo is not fooled, and he knows better than to trust his senses in matters of the heart. Certain that the real Rema is alive and in hiding, he embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim her. With the help of his psychiatric patient Harvey--who believes himself to be a secret agent able to conrtol the weather--his investigation leads him from the streets of New York City to the southernmost reaches of Patagonia, in search of the woman he loves. Atmospheric Disturbances is a "witty, tender, and conceptually dazzling" (Booklist) novel about the mysterious nature of human relationships.
About the Author
Rivka Galchen received her MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, having spent a year in South America working on public health issues. Galchen recently completed her MFA at Columbia University, where she was a Robert Bingham Fellow. Her essay on the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics was published in The Believer, and she is the recipient of a 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Galchen lives in New York City. This is her first novel.
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