Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen's debut novel, begins with a bold statement: "Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife" (p. 3). It's a perfect hook into the paranoid world of the novel's narrator and protagonist, fifty-one-year-old New York psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, as he recalls the loss of his original wife, Rema. My interpretation of this mystery was contextualised by the two epigraphs preceding it: the first being a quotation from the meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen stressing that the difficulty of predicting the weather at the human scale is due to our inability to understand the weather as experienced moment to moment; the second taken from Gilles Deleuze's Proust and Signs (original publication 1964), stressing the centrality of silent interpretation throughout the process of being in love. Together, they signpost the centrality of interpretation within the text, ensuring my scrutiny of Leo's tale of swapped wives and sinister plots.
Leo's disowning of the "impostress" has no immediate perceptual basis, as he concedes that she was identical to the original: "Same everything, but it wasn't Rema. It was just a feeling, that's how I knew" (p. 3). Indeed, Leo's only real argument against Rema's authenticity is that she occasionally behaves in ways that he would not expect her to; and this could possibly be seen as a reflection of his professional pride, his need to feel that he fully understands the people around him. To Leo, individuals are comprised of a series of traits that they must slavishly adhere to. The main reason for his suspicion, for example, is that the simulacrum has brought home a dog; an action uncharacteristic of the "real" Rema, who has no love of canines.
Leo's reliability is thus a crucial question. He has a tendency towards self examination, which offers some illuminating clues as to his subjective perspective, such as his confession that: "I've sometimes had the feeling that my life was insignificant, and even that my love was nothing more than an accumulation of contingencies—still, all that ran contrary to the enduring phenomenon of my own sense of great importance" (p. 213). He is at once totally convinced of his superiority and yet also deeply insecure about his popularity and the strength of the relationship he has with his young and glamorous wife. The extent of Leo's self absorption is illustrated when he responds to his wife's replacement by feeling like "a cuckolded husband in an old movie" (p. 5), as opposed to worrying about her safety.
I believe that Galchen uses the science fictional device of the simulacrum as a deliberate ploy, recalling Philip K. Dick stories such as "The Father-Thing" (1954) and films including Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), wherein sinister forces replace people with copies who fool consensus opinion, but whose imperfection is uncovered by those closest to them as they experience a sense of the uncanny. Readers attuned to sf reading practices will thus be directed to at least attempt to give credence to Leo's perspective on events. A number of seemingly corroborative fantastical events are alluded to in quick succession when we meet Harvey, a missing patient of Leo's with a diagnosis of "schitzotypal personality disorder" (p. 11) manifesting in a "conflict with the consensus view of reality" (p. 12). He describes himself as an agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology, engaged in their battle to prevent the 49 Quantum Fathers from manipulating the weather for financial gain through their access to the events occurring in possible alternate worlds. Through the lens of sf reading practices, I felt cued to question whether Harvey had been misdiagnosed, and was prepared to find that he had access to knowledge beyond that of those who had deemed him to be ill.
Leo's wife had urged him to identify with Harvey by posing as another agent from the Royal Academy, pretending to report to an actual member of the organisation, the epigraph-providing Tzvi Gal-Chen (a fictional representation of the author's father who, despite being dead within the fictional world, appears to communicate with Leo and Harvey later in the text). This pretence spills over into Leo's relationship with Rema; they started to discuss Tzvi as though he were a close friend, indicating that the lines between reality and imagination had already become blurred for the psychiatrist even before Rema's "disappearance." Leo makes a connection between the arrival of the simulacrum and Harvey's disappearance a couple of days earlier, slowly coming to suspect that the 49 and/or the Royal Academy are responsible for both events. The ensuing action sees him scouring familiar haunts around New York before travelling to Buenos Aires and Patagonia, following interpretive readings of Tzvi's meteorological essays and confused telephone conversations with a temporary member of staff at the Royal Academy.
Far from uncovering evidence to support Leo and Harvey's theories, these investigations make it increasingly difficult for a reader to believe in their version of reality. Despite contact with Tzvi via email, Leo witnesses no objectively extraordinary events and the clues he sees as patterning his attempts to track down Rema seem forced and self created, ultimately leading to an anticlimactic meeting with a member of the Royal Academy that ends with their refusal to speak to him. When Leo and Harvey encounter one another in a Patagonian hotel, it seems to suggest more that the two have become enmeshed in one another's delusions (with several clues that Harvey is the person writing the correspondence from Tzvi), rather than offering any hint that the battle with the 49 exists in reality outside of their shared imaginings.
A strong case can be made that Leo's inability to recognise Rema as his wife is a manifestation of Capgras' delusion, described by V.S. Ramachandran as:
one of the rarest and most colourful syndromes in neurology. The patient, who is often mentally quite lucid, comes to regard close acquaintances—usually his parents, children, spouse or siblings—as impostors. (Phantoms in the Brain , p. 161)
In Atmospheric Disturbances this is mentioned during an exchange between Leo and Rema, wherein the psychiatrist is presented with reports on similar syndromes. Leo's pride and professional expertise combine to make his rejection of her suggestions inevitable. He does not allow the evidence that Rema presents to dissuade him from the "truth" that his wife has been replaced, reasoning that:
If a story seems too random, or perhaps too brilliant, for a "madman" to have conceived of it himself, then consider that the "author" might be reality and the "madman" just the reader. After all, only reality can escape the limits of our imagination. (p.160)
The growing battle of wills between husband and wife is without doubt the central theme of the novel, as Rema attempts to persuade him that he needs to seek help and Leo vehemently defends his interpretative faculties. Clues are provided throughout the narrative to support Rema's position, as Leo's self analysis suggests that his breakdown might be the result of a life of anxious doubt:
all my life, so many alarms seem always to be sounding, and so it becomes near impossible ever to say what a particular alarm might be signaling, or what might have set it off, or if it in any way ought to be heeded. (pp. 15-16)
Whatever the true nature of reality within the text, Leo's interpretations are utterly real to him. I found myself questioning his narration throughout, wondering to what extent his subjectivity had distorted the events he relayed.
For example: he repeatedly exhibits aversion to manifestations of emotion, preferring to retain a professional distance even within personal relationships. It is therefore entirely possible that the whole narrative is his fictionalised account of the emotions he cannot face whilst he falls out of love with his wife, as is suggested by an internal voice: "I'd thought you didn't even love her that much anymore, some part of me taunted. Some parts of me are so mean" (p. 57). Leo is both old fashioned and sexist in his views, not understanding why women would feel the need for a career and valuing them in terms of their beauty. Therefore, Rema's aging may have played a part in his rejection of her as an inferior copy, remaining oblivious to the distress his behaviour has caused his wife: "then I noticed that she—the simulacrum—had fine lines of age on her face. [...] Someone pretty, but not as pretty" (p. 36).
Leo's obstinacy—he consistently blames others for his misfortunes—at times makes the text a frustrating read, but I think that this emotion is central to engagement with Atmospheric Disturbances. It is to Galchen's credit that such an unhappy, arrogant protagonist can hold our attention throughout digressions and rambling self justification for the length of the novel. Galchen sparingly deploys a number of devices to maintain this engagement, such as lengthy sentences that start to lose their meaning when clauses cease to refer to one another, reflecting his distracted, confused state of mind. The short, three or four page chapters are reminiscent of journal entries, adding another layer to the text as the reader imagines it to be the private thoughts of this troubled individual; perhaps an exercise in self examination?
Atmospheric Disturbances certainly lends itself to many alternative readings, but for me the novel's main success is in depicting the inexorable dissipation of a relationship between two people. There is no grandiose sf adventure; Leo's inability to interpret the changes time and circumstances have wrought upon Rema is summed up by his tragic observation that: "usually we were tender to each other through moody periods, but sometimes we'd get struck by a dark mood at the same time and then we'd be lost" (p. 199). It seems obvious that Rema is trying to help him navigate through these troubled times, but that he is too far engaged in the logic of his interpretative entanglement to perceive that he will inevitably lose what he has been striving to regain. However, I think familiarity with sf reading practices enhance the narrative, as it makes one reticent to dismiss the possibility of Leo's story being true for quite some time. The gradual shift towards conviction that he is unreliable is sustained through a willingness to accept the possibility of non-consensus versions of reality existing within the fictional world of the novel. It haunts the text throughout, reminding us that we rely upon cues and conventions in our reading practices, linking us to the novel's interpretative project.
At the end of the novel there is no sense of closure, just a temporary respite, as Leo agrees to return home with Rema, despite continuing to see her as a simulacrum. He even acknowledges that he will one day resume his quest to find the real Rema, suggesting that the events in the novel will become a cyclical occurrence, that all he has experienced will happen again. Despite such a seemingly bleak prospect, the final note is oddly optimistic, suggesting that Leo finds some comfort in searching for a lost, perfect love, predicting that at such a time: "I'll at least know the purpose of the rest of my life" (p. 240).
David is an English Literature graduate from Liverpool who has returned to his home city
for an MA in Science Fiction Studies. He has previously reviewed for the Interzone website.
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