Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

[21 September 2008]

By David Pullar

The man who mistook his wife for a simulacrum

“I did tell Rema that her response was ludicrously out of proportion. She must actually be worried about something else, I said. She had an endogenous mésalliance, I concluded. She said she didn’t know what a mésalliance was, or what endogenous was, and that I was arrogant, awful, a few other things as well. I liked those accusations and found them flattering and thought she was right.”
—Dr. Leo Liebenstein in Atmospheric Disturbances

What does it mean when you say that you “know” someone?

The answer to this question will inevitably go beyond a mere list of facts. Our knowledge of another person can’t be reduced to a combination of characteristics—there’s also an intuition or instinct we have about them. This sense of “knowing” is unpredictable and hard to explain, mostly because it’s somehow internal to us.

As such, it can easily be disturbed, especially when someone acts contrary to your expectations. “I don’t even know you anymore,” we exclaim. But is it the other person who has changed? Or is it just that the person in our head was never entirely real?

These are not small questions, but they’re explored with a lot of insight in Rivka Galchen’s complex and impressive debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances.

At the simplest level, Atmospheric Disturbances is about a psychiatrist, Dr Leo Liebenstein, who becomes convinced one day that his wife has been replaced by another woman. He’s not especially perturbed by this state of affairs, nor does he really question why or how this was achieved. He does, however, decide that his real wife has been “taken”, somehow, somewhere, and he is determined to find her.

Leo Liebenstein is utterly unshakeable in his certainty that the woman living in his apartment is not actually Rema, his younger Argentinean wife. She “feels” wrong, an intuition that Liebenstein tries to ascribe to any number of perceived differences. She is too emotional; and sometimes not emotional enough. She loves dogs, where the real Rema (we are told) did not. Her movements are different, although sometimes eerily similar. Even when she is exactly like Rema, Liebenstein attributes this to clever mimicry.

To put it crudely, Liebenstein is crazy. As a psychiatrist, he is constantly on the lookout for signs of psychosis or dysfunction in himself, yet there are gigantic blind-spots in his self-perception. Even as he relentlessly assesses his own thought processes, he apparently finds nothing odd in his conviction that Rema has been replaced by an almost identical woman for no conceivable reason. Further, he feels that his approach to finding Rema, including using the technical papers of an eminent meteorologist, is, if not rational, then at least reasonable. Leo does not even question his subsequent receipt of communications and advice from a long-dead man. These are the sorts of things that happen every day in Leo’s world, it seems.

For a man who frequently contrasts his patients’ delusions with the “consensus view of reality”, he is remarkably unconcerned that no one else shares his view of things. In fact, the only person who sees nothing odd in Dr Liebenstein’s absurd quest for Rema is Harvey, a patient who believes that he is a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology and receives instructions through the New York Post. Even this is probably because Leo’s quest is mostly inspired by Harvey’s fantastic world.

The problem with Liebenstein (or merely one of the problems) is his ability to rationalise almost anything with a veneer of pseudo-science. He twists his own psychiatric analysis to justify his own muddled thinking. He gains strange meanings and significance from meteorological papers that were never intended and which he barely understands himself. For Liebenstein, it’s a case of science, not actually as it is, but as it feels.

Liebenstein’s quixotic quest and the bizarre circumstances he encounters bring to mind Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another story of a man searching vainly for his missing wife. The key difference has to be that where Murakami’s narrative is deliberately counter-realist, it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that Atmospheric Disturbances is operating in a largely rational universe. Any strangeness is predominantly in the mind of the narrator.

While we can sympathise with a sane narrator being confused by an insane world (as in Murakami), Dr Liebenstein is a more troubling protagonist. In particular, we can only imagine the impact on the “ersatz Rema” of Leo’s behaviour, especially when we have no reason to suppose she is actually a replacement beyond our unreliable narrator’s suspicions. It reminds the reader too clearly of the pain inflicted on loved ones by dementia or serious mental illness.

From a more selfish angle, sometimes following Leo on his odyssey just gets tiring. His mental “connections” and leaps can leave the reader feeling as if they must have missed a vital link three chapters back. Galchen keeps things sufficiently interesting and the prose is always engaging; it’s just that one chapter of crazy thinking starts to look a lot like the others.

Even so, while there might not be much method in Dr Liebenstein’s madness, there is in Galchen’s approach. By looking at a disordered mind and a truly dysfunctional relationship, she manages to draw out many of the complexities of much more conventional lives.

Even without the complicating factor of Leo’s psychosis, the Rema-Leo pairing is a difficult one. The age and cultural gaps are significant and their personalities are less complementary than flat-out opposing. Rema is emotional and spontaneous—unfortunately an overused personality type for the Latin woman character—whereas Leo is literal and rather humourless. Unfortunately for marital happiness everywhere, mismatches like these are not uncommon.

Tension in this kind of relationship is inevitable. Leo clearly so little understands his wife or her motivations that it’s laughable that he regards himself as able to identify an imposter. He loves her, yet he’s not exactly clear on who it is that he loves. He’s a hopeless romantic in one sense and yet his romantic feelings are so poorly directed—especially once he abandons the woman living with him to go in search of her “true” doppelganger.

The power of Atmospheric Disturbances is not in its depiction of psychosis, although that’s impressive enough—it’s in how effectively it symbolises this kind of romantic confusion. So often people “fall in love” with little mutual knowledge and understanding—and are so shocked when the other is thought to have “changed”. If not everyone processes this by deciding that their partner is a stand-in, well, the metaphor is no less true.

It’s a deeply sad novel in that it shows how misguided and self-deluding we can be. Yet it also shows the extraordinary self-sacrifice and love that people are capable of. In the messiness and drama, Atmospheric Disturbances pretty much encapsulates the sheer chaos and beauty of human relationships better.

Published at: