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Atmospheric Disturbances

by Rivka Galchen

Toronto-born, New York-raised author Rivka Galchen’s first novel is a clever, stylish debut that wears its postmodern conventions on its sleeve. The narrator is Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist suffering from his own paranoid delusion. As the novel opens, Leo believes that his wife Rema has been replaced by a lookalike (or “simulacrum” or “doppelganger”). This domestic affair becomes entangled with the imaginings of Dr. Leo’s patient Harvey, who is convinced that a cabal known as the 49 Quantum Fathers is attempting to undermine the Royal Academy of Meteorology and control global weather patterns. Both Leo and Harvey think that they are being contacted by deceased Academy meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen – the author’s real-life father.

The wide-ranging plot, which takes Leo and Harvey all the way to Patagonia, has a zaniness that makes its more personal elements hard to take seriously. This is unfortunate because Galchen shows herself capable of doing wonderful things with the book’s characters, as when Leo imagines the wrinkles in a set of bed covers morphing into diagrams of force that correspond to the fluctuations in his mood.

Leo’s wilder fantasies are, paradoxically, more conventional. The unreliable first-person narrator has become a familiar figure in contemporary fiction, and there seems no way to employ the doubling motif and all of its attendant mirror imagery with a light hand. Leo is also hard to warm to: intelligent and articulate, but also nerdy, needy, and self-absorbed, not only cold but cruel in his remorseless pursuit of the “real” Rema. What Rema sees, or ever saw, in him is difficult to figure out.

The book is still a lot of fun, particularly in its playful manipulation of language. Rema speaks a slightly ungrammatical English while Leo is constantly mis-hearing words in a way that casts conversations in a sinister light. The spiralling plot, with Leo chasing an imaginary Rema while the real Rema chases him, moves along at a brisk pace. The fact that it is all a bit too quirky for its own good doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.