Atmospheric Disturbances

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances concerns Dr. Leo Liebenstein and his quest to find his wife, Rema, who, he believes, has been replaced by a double. There is no particular reason for the reader to accept that Rema has been substituted by what he calls a “simulacrum,” and once the reader learns to doubt Leo’s perspective, much of the novel’s tension comes from trying to tease out what is real and what is delusion. Written in the unreliable first-person narrative tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Letters from the Underworld, 1913; better known as Notes from the Underground), Atmospheric Disturbances alerts the reader to Leo’s bizarre theory in the novel’s first sentence: “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” As a “fifty-one-year-old male psychiatrist” with no previous history of mental illness, Leo is used to analyzing his patients’ crazy behavior, but he has a humorously hard time distinguishing his own. In an interview, Galchen has admitted, “I’m not that interested in the medical side of the narrator’s conditiondid he get hit on the head with a board? Is it dementia? I’m more concerned with the emotions behind it.” Through the lens of Leo’s highly intellectual but distorted point of view, Galchen creates a novel of the mind enlivened by the scientific and psychological mysteries as well as anything happening externally in the novel’s plot.

Once the reader starts to see through Leo’s presumed discovery, the novel raises the question “Why would he think that his wife has been replaced?” Perhaps the answer has something to do with her being so much younger than he is. In addition, her “double” brings home a puppy, and he’s certain that Rema would never do that, since she does not like dogs. His alienation from her might have something to do with how their relationship has changed over time. Leo also betrays insecurities about Rema that may have led to his theory of her supposed disappearance. He constantly fears male competition for her affection. When he first leaves the home to go check about a patient, Harvey, Leo notes how many of Rema’s colleagues are devoted to her. When he tells a colleague that there may be something “off” about Rema, the man abruptly replies: “You used to just be jealous. Now you’ve converted your jealousy into a psychological gain, some narcissistic pleasure in believing that everyone else wants what you have, wants to sleep with your wife. You should grow up. It’s not healthy.” Every now and again, reality almost intrudes upon Leo’s delusions in this fashion, but he’s good at finding evidence to refute it. In another scene, he considers that even though the “simulacrum” looks very much like Rema as she leans against the counter in the kitchen, he worries that he may be falling into “post hoc reasoning” of the “psychotic,” when “all evidence [is] interpreted under the shadow of an axiomatic belief.” Therefore, she must not be Rema. In other scenes, he even considers “analyzing” his situation as if it were a “patient’s,” but ultimately his psychiatrist’s detachment helps keep him from ever correctly diagnosing himself. He continues to find external clues to help support his crazy deductions. Through this process, Galchen meditates on how the most familiar person (such as one’s spouse) can become alien through a small shift in perspective, and in the tradition of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, the characters’ identities become opaque and fragment during the remainder of the novel.

As the novel’s title implies, Galchen uses the weather both metaphorically and scientifically. Leo has a patient with “schizotypal personality disorder,” the aforementioned Harvey, who believes that, as a member of the Royal Meteorological Society, he can control the weather. After receiving directives from clues buried in the New York Post, Harvey sometimes leaves New York to encounter some storm or weather front in different places in the United States. To stop Harvey from making these dangerous trips, Rema persuades Leo to pretend to be an official of the Royal Meteorological Society at a level superior to Harvey so that Leo can order his patient to stay in New York City. Leo has serious problems with her proposal, but he goes along with the duplicity, in part to get along with her. When they are obliged to mention another member of the society as a colleague, they arbitrarily find a member’s nameTsvi Gal-Chento firm up the deception. Their ruse works very...

(The entire section is 1888 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 105, no. 6 (November 15, 2008): 65.

The Economist 387 (June 28, 2008): 92-93.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 8 (April 15, 2008): 383.

Library Journal 133, no. 8 (May 1, 2008): 55.

The New York Times Book Review, July 13, 2008, p. 4.

The New Yorker 84, no. 18 (June 23, 2008): 79-80.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 6 (February 11, 2008): 47.

Time 171, no. 22 (June 2, 2008): 62.

The Village Voice 53, no. 24 (June 11, 2008): 47.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 122 (May 24, 2008): W1-W6.