“Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” So begins Rivka Galchen’s strange and enthralling first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24), a whirlwind musing on doppelgangers, sanity and meteorological currents. With deadpan wit and surrealist narration, Galchen’s narrator, the psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, takes the reader on a ride through New York, Buenos Aires and Patagonia, in search of his lost wife and of the nature of reality itself.
A blend of Pynchon, Murakami and Nicole Krauss, the novel’s plot is nearly undiagrammable. Suffice it to say that it involves an unreliable narrator convinced that his wife has been replaced with an exact duplicate, a secret society of weather forecasters that control the world’s forces and many cups of coffee served by waitresses with dyed-blonde hair. Leo chases his perhaps-lost wife Rema and his psychiatric patient Harvey to Rema’s ancestral home of Buenos Aires, there meeting her estranged mother and investigating the complicated interconnections with the esteemed meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen (name not coincidental). If this sounds like too many details to follow, never fear: Galchen’s short chapters and dry delivery keep the plot moving, a twisty road where you can see just far enough ahead to appreciate the destination to which you’re being delivered.
At the heart of this novel lie deep musings about identity and reality: how do we trust what we think we see? Leo wakes one day to see a woman who looks almost exactly like his wife, but not quite: she bears an uncharacteristic love for dogs, she smells slightly different. And from this introduction going forward, Leo’s own mental health is suspect to the reader. Identities shift and blur: Rema’s impersonation of Tzvi Gal-Chen bespeaks a greater confusion as to Gal-Chen’s identity—and his association with the author herself; the 49 Quantum Fathers of meteorology may run the world or merely control Harvey’s psychosis. Beneath these general confusions sit deeper historical themes: the “disappeared” in Argentina and the specter of European and South American refugees making their way in the United States.
By constantly keeping the reader on the defensive, unsure of the narrative’s truth, Galchen induces the same sort of paranoia that Leo diagnoses in his patients and sees in himself. What keeps the narrative centered is the specificity of detail, the absurd descriptions of a small hole in a pocket, a pistachio-stained finger. Atmospheric Disturbances marks a masterful debut, a sardonic rollicking ride that returns you home, unsure as to whether you’re the same as before the storm hit.
Sara N.S. Meirowitz studies, teaches Jewish texts and works as a freelance editor and writer in Jerusalem.