Rivka Galchen’s debut novel is one of my favourites from the last few years. Galchen drops us into the head of Leo Leibenstein, an ageing psychiatrist who’s convinced that his wife, Rema, has been replaced by an exact double, a simulacrum, a doppelgänger, an ‘impostress’, despite all proof to the contrary. There is no way to believe the elaborate and pointless conspiracy this narrator maps onto his delusion, and yet the reader has no other perspective but his. His complex illogic confirms its own biases and ignores anything to the contrary.
With the language of science, repurposed and unbound from its usual context, Leo constructs an explanation for his missing and replaced wife involving an international meteorological conspiracy. He reads complex reports that he cannot understand and finds corroboration for his theories, warping science to meet personal needs, grabbing and distorting words and ideas to create labyrinthine explanations for all of his beliefs. The absurdity of his pseudoscientific ‘dopplergänger effect’ offers small relief from the tragedy of Leo’s dissolving marriage.
The desperation and distance Leo creates by trying to solve the problem of his wife’s doppelgänger is the heart of this story. It is unclear whether the distance has caused his delusion, or the other way around. ‘Who can ever really know about anyone’s happiness, even one’s own?’ he asks, and we see very clearly the bubble he has created. He is alone, looking outward, trying to understand the profound disconnect he feels with the woman he married.
It is hard to reread this (or anything these days) outside the context of current events. Galchen has given us a narrator who is implacably confident, who fields and reinterprets reality so that each perceived detail corroborates his foregone conclusions. If he says his wife is not his wife, then there’s no way she can be. Every similarity is proof of her otherness, every assurance becomes part of the conspiracy, every contradiction is a challenge or a threat. Perception cannot be trusted, only feelings, and language itself becomes a tool of distortion.
I will not try to attribute extreme foresight to an already prescient work. Atmospheric Disturbances is in open conversation with Borges, who himself approached real life fascism through the power of fabulist fiction. When Leo first meets his Argentinian wife, he worries ‘that bringing up Borges might appear showy,’ then admits, ‘it’s rather ambiguous what such a reference would or should indicate.’ Galchen makes her attribution, self deprecates through her character, blurs the direct line readers might try to make and thereby shows herself a worthy heir. Like Borges, Galchen does not take a political stance in her fiction, but creates a fable through which we find nuance that might otherwise have been obscured.
Photograph © NOAA Photo Library