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American Innovations

by Rivka Galchen

Rivka Galchen, who was shortlisted for both the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award and a Governor General’s Literary Award for her debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, shows that she is also an accomplished short-story writer with this excellent collection.

Galchen’s voice is typical of what has become the mainstream for short fiction – unsurprising given that many of these stories first appeared in one of the genre’s premier venues, The New Yorker, and that Galchen is a graduate of the creative writing program at Columbia University, where she now teaches. This style is characterized by a conversational smoothness and flow, allied with an observant, intelligent eye and easy wit.

One can never be sure what direction the stories will go because they have no linear tale to tell; they proceed through free association, dreams, and seemingly obscure cues and clues. In some stories, such as “Once an Empire,” the link to dreaming is made explicitly, the narrator’s bizarre sequence of thoughts likened to a “gentle bull . . . helplessly charging at the sight of red.” Even the more realistic pieces tend to let go and drift. “Dean of the Arts” begins with a nod to the power of serendipity, then takes us on a trip to Mexico City that runs down a rabbit hole of fictions, dreams, and false memories.

The protagonists are mostly young women with few personal attachments (even the occasional spouse is pushed into the background). They are deadpan, wary of emotion, and self-absorbed without being particularly self-aware or introspective. Like the stories themselves, they tend to drift, avatars of wandering cool experiencing anti-epiphanies that function more as punctuation than revelation. Even the allusions to stories by other writers (Gogol, Borges, et al.) are glancing, meant to be noticed but not carrying much deeper resonance.

Through all of this Galchen shows herself to be not just a chronicler of her generation but a credible interpreter of her world. It’s a world of disconnection and entropy, but is nevertheless rendered with charm, a sense of wonder, and honesty.