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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Atmospheric Disturbances

Rivka Galchen

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Title: Atmospheric Disturbances
Author: Rivka Galchen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 240 pages
Availability: Atmospheric Disturbances - US
Atmospheric Disturbances - UK
Atmospheric Disturbances - Canada
Pertubations atmosphériques - France
Atmosphärische Störungen - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : appealing tone, but frustrating psycho-mystery -- and presented with too much baggage

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 6-8/2008 Stacey D’Erasmo
The Economist A- 26/6/2008 .
Entertainment Weekly A- 30/5/2008 Jennifer Reese
The Independent . 24/6/2008 Jonathan Gibbs
The NY Sun B- 28/5/2008 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/7/2008 Liesl Schillinger
The New Yorker . 23/6/2008 James Wood
The Observer A 5/10/2008 Killian Fox
The Telegraph . 2/8/2008 Sameer Rahim
The Village Voice . 10/6/2008 Zach Baron
The Washington Post . 1/6/2008 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  Impressed by aspects of it, don't all think it's entirely a success

  From the Reviews:
  • "To attempt to follow the clues in this novel is to engage in a fruitless exercise, like trying to climb the stairs in an Escher woodcut. She’s not there, and you can’t find her that way, anyway. As Liebenstein tacks back and forth in increasingly paranoid circuits through his inner and outer worlds -- there are diagrams in this novel, found photographs, and a drawing of the Doppler effect -- a weight, beautifully, accumulates in the white space. Liebenstein’s profound loneliness is in that unseen weight. The shape that he’s drawing with increasing franticness on the page doesn’t really matter, we begin to see; the tension of the novel derives from everything he has no word or diagram for: his heart, mysteriously forlorn." - Stacey D’Erasmo, Bookforum

  • "This is a kind of love story -- one that obliquely recognises the challenges of making love last. (…) Ms Galchen writes with impressive authority, spinning artful descriptions and punchlines that curdle unexpectedly. (…) His search for Rema starts to lose steam two-thirds of the way in, and the science can get a bit clunky. But the story is genuinely suspenseful, and Leo’s clause-heavy patter feels fresh and wry -- his perspective curiously weird -- even as he unravels." - The Economist

  • "There are passages so achingly beautiful in Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances -- about love, resilience, and perception -- that you will not mind picking through a high-concept narrative that would have worked better as a short story." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Some might bristle at mental illness being co-opted yet again for fashionable metaphors. That aside, this is a diverting and impressive debut." - Jonathan Gibbs, The Independent

  • "But the novel's whole convoluted plot is justified only because it is supposed to make us question reality, and the signs by which we decide what is real. (…) Pushed far enough -- as it is in some stories by Borges or Kafka -- this chain of reasoning can plunge the reader into a genuine metaphysical uncertainty. Ms. Galchen, however, never feels that much in earnest: With her elaborately researched digressions on meteorology and her metafictional jokes, she is too much in control of her story to let it menace her, or the reader. By the same token, while Leo is an unreliable narrator, Ms. Galchen takes care to mute the potential havoc such a narrator can cause. (…) It is on this level, the level of psychological realism rather than postmodern invention, that Atmospheric Disturbances succeeds, and where Ms. Galchen displays her real gifts as a writer." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "Galchen’s inventive narrative strategies call to mind the playful techniques of Jonathan Lethem, Franz Kafka, Primo Levi and Thomas Pynchon. But she also, quite deliberately, echoes the Argentine giant Jorge Luis Borges. Like Borges, she sabotages concepts of identity, reality and place, fraying her protagonist’s ties to all three. (...) You don’t have to be a weatherman to see that Galchen’s brainteasing book, whatever its pretexts, is an exploration of the mutability of romantic love. Although she has intellectualized and mystified her subject, intentionally obscuring it in a dry-ice fog of pseudoscience, the emotional peaks beneath her cloud retain their definition." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Rivka Galchen’s first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is being praised as Borgesian and Pynchonian, and certainly clutches at the frills of that lineage. (…) But it is more naturally seen as a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability. Like Lenz, the story opens simply and then, superbly, flakes. (…) But this postmodern jauntiness too legibly packages her themes, and undermines her novelistic commitment to the mysteriousness of Leo’s despair. What is strongest in the novel is the delicacy with which Galchen evokes the bewildering randomness of Leo’s visionary insanity; Leo is at his most moving not when he conveniently pleases the reader with explication but when he turns away from the reader, to wash in his own opacity. (…) If the Dopplerganger effect is too cute, the selection of the author’s father’s name as a character in the novel is awfully risky." - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "Giving voice to a character as weird as Leo is quite a tightrope act but Galchen, in this excellent first novel, confidently pulls it off. The twitchy, digressive prose and idiosyncratic phrasing (tourists in a Patagonian town are described as 'the local culture of nonlocal pleasure seekers') are counterbalanced by Leo's analytical cast of mind and hypersensitivity. (...) The novel is also very funny." - Killian Fox, The Observer

  • "Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen's playful and moving first novel, explores the consequences of a radical change of personality." - Sameer Rahim, The Telegraph

  • "Even as the novel's ticker tape of weathermen, mental patients, dwarf people, seductive waitresses, and chimp-human hybrids begins to unspool, Galchen's sentences remain cool, calm, and loaded. (…) The threads of metaphor and misdirection turn and twist, but Galchen's chief investigation -- can two people ever know one another? If so, can they continue to do so over time ? -- has a kind of epistemological modesty that her crowded, wandering plot often lacks." - Zach Baron, The Village Voice

  • "What remains so unsettling, and often funny, about Leo is the way his intelligent observations slip into looniness. (…) All of this is impressively clever, but it's hard to sustain over the course of an entire novel, even a short one like this. Once you've laughed at Leo's psychotic tics a few times, they grow more familiar than funny. But just when the joke seems to have played out, when we've comfortably distanced ourselves from this ridiculous man, Galchen concludes with Leo's quiet, heartbreaking plan for the future. After all his craziness, it's a startling reminder of how ordinary his case is." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Atmospheric Disturbances opens with a woman coming home, and the narrator, psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, certain that this is not his wife, Rema. This despite the fact that the woman is, in practically every respect, unmistakably Rema. Sure, she's brought a dog home, and Rema isn't particularly dog-friendly, so that's certainly odd, but otherwise this woman is so similar to Rema that it's hard for anyone not to wonder whether this case of mistaking (or denying) identity isn't all just in Leo's head. Disappointingly for a mental health professional Leo doesn't consider that possibility very seriously.
       Leo is certainly put out by the fact that he's lost his Rema, and that there's this (essentially identical) substitute in her place, and he goes to great lengths to try to find out what has happened (and, perhaps, to recover his Rema). In doing so he also gets mixed up in one of his patient's delusions. This patient, Harvey, sees himself as an agent of the Royal Academy of Meteorology, a butterfly -- like every living being -- whose actions can have a great influence elsewhere, and who undertakes little weather-changing tasks. In order to keep Harvey more or less under control, Rema suggested that Leo pose as another agent of the Royal Academy, but a higher-level one, who would then be Harvey's 'handler', telling him what missions to go on. Leo has some qualms about the deception, but eventually takes it up, with -- at least at first -- good and predictable success.
       Part of the ruse has Leo working under the auspices of someone else at the Royal Academy, and here Leo makes the fatal choice of selecting someone actually associated with that institution, Tzvi Gal-Chen, "an anomalous and gentle sort of name, somehow authoritative and innocent at once".
       Gal-Chen turns out to be both more (and, in one significant way, much less) than Leo could have hoped for. Gal-Chen is an interesting background figure, but also a terribly problematic one. As a fictional creation he might pass, but unfortunately Tzvi Gal-Chen also shares the name, profession, and other basic characteristics of author Rivka Galchen's father; indeed, the text includes two family photographs which, one suspects, both show father and daughter.
       For a variety of reasons, the use of this real person is discomfiting. Perhaps it's possible to read the novel as not being an (admittedly very creatively shaped) excuse for the author to look for daddy, but we found it impossible to keep that thought from intruding on almost every page; perhaps that was Galchen's intention, but unfortunately she is, to an outsider unfamiliar with most of the details of the Galchens' lives, not particularly successful in this. (And if it's just a 'tribute' to dear old dad to give him such a prominent place in the narrative, well, that seems just plain too creepy.)
       The paranoid fantasy of: 'my spouse has been replaced by a simulacrum' certainly has some potential, and Galchen does have some fun with it, but it's not a terribly original premise -- and for readers who, for example, recently read Antonio Muñoz Molina's In her Absence, which begins with a scene almost identical to the opening of Atmospheric Disturbances, it can already seem pretty old (as, unfortunately, it did to us).
       Galchen's tone -- Leo's voice -- is fairly appealing, though he's disturbingly off-kilter for a psychiatrist, and there are some enjoyable twists along the way, but overall it's not particularly remarkable. The randomness, and the peculiar way in which things are thought through by Leo -- thoroughly, in a way, yet often missing (or avoiding) the obvious -- add to the irritation; yes, it (and the allusions) give the novel a Pynchonian feel, but that, too, only goes so far.
       The book is apparently meant to be puzzling, but it seems unlikely that Galchen meant it to be puzzling in this particular way.

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Atmospheric Disturbances: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Rivka Galchen (b. 1976) is also a doctor.

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© 2008-2010 the complete review

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