Books

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

David Pullar

The power of this book is not in its depiction of psychosis -- it’s in how effectively it symbolises this kind of romantic confusion.


Atmospheric Disturbances

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 9780374200114
Author: Rivka Galchen
Price: $24.00
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-05
Amazon
“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Atmospheric Disturbances is about a psychiatrist, Dr Leo Liebenstein, who becomes convinced one day that his wife has been replaced by another woman.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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.