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Tuesday , December 14, 2010
The KAT ATTACK Book Club: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
I fell for this book really hard for a variety of reasons, some of which I'll list here in handy-dandy order of how they happened:
1. Huge portions of this book take place in my neighborhood of Morningside Heights, and it also references my local coffee shop in a way that makes it abundantly clear that the author has spent many, many hours there. Somehow when this happens in a book, this makes me love the place even more and makes me love the book even more dearly, like a circle of gooey affection.
2. It's actually believable that these people live in the NYC that I know, with its rickety-old apartments and idiosyncratic plumbing and non-glamorous kitchens.
3. The way the man loves the woman in the book is sometimes how I suspect that women wish men would love them...meaning that it is about a man finally paying close attention to his beloved and delving into the truth of who she is instead of concocting some image or fantasy about her and then taking her for granted, which is a lot of ladies' big fear.
4. There is a reference to a powder blue pea coat with round buttons that made me want to wear one.
5. It's just a fucking good book and I think some of you out there will enjoy it.
Atmospheric Disturbances begins simply enough: the wife of a middle-aged psychiatrist comes home, and her husband realizes that she has been replaced by a doppelganger, an "imposter," as he comes to call her. Dr. Leo Liebenstein then spends the rest of the book in search of his real wife Rema, unfurling a kind of "extraordinary things happening to ordinary people" journey that involves the Hungarian Pastry Shop, meteorology, Argentina, an enigmatic mother-in-law and a schizophrenic, among many other things. It's all very surreal, sometimes funny, somewhat alienated - and ultimately very moving.
This is the type of book that is usually described as a tour-de-force in some way because it takes such odd hairpin turns and gets marooned in some interesting, though not necessarily vital, intellectual thickets - the language of science permeates the book, and you'll need a little patience to wade through it in parts. But the way Galchen uses that language turns back in on itself, and you realize its inadequacy to describe most mysterious human processes of all: that of love, intimacy and the human heart. That sounds cheesy, but it's true. For all his erudition, Leo was always and remains befuddled by the person he loves most on the earth, and this is his (and the reader's) biggest source of beauty and frustration.
This is a curious book in that it's about intimacy, but not really about "relationships" as we know them in the modern sense - in fact, one can argue that Leo seems to have spent much of his relationship with Rema prior to her "disappearance" not quite relating to her or even understanding her much. The story's heart is really about the idea of the beloved - about having the biggest source of mystery in your life be in the closest proximity to you, about realizing the person you love most is a foreign land, with a language, history and customs that are nothing like your own. No matter how far you travel, you'll never quite penetrate into its inner workings or secrets or mysteries. That Leo remains forever in search of Rema to the end breaks your heart in so many ways because it's both a testament to how much he loves her but also a mirror of the fear that we can never truly be close to those flames that we flutter closest towards.
Atmospheric Disturbances ends on a kind of Mobius strip of perception, a twist that is so seamless that you don't realize that it's happening till you fully understand the point of view upon which Leo interprets the information he gathers and ultimately filters his existence. Because of this, as well as the labyrinthine intellectual contortions and the playfulness of her language and devices, Galchen often gets compared to Pynchon, Borges and Murakami, and definitely if you're into those writers, you'll probably have a deep appreciation for this book. But as much as I love those writers - Murakami especially is one of my most favorite contemporary authors these days - rarely have I ever shut one of those dudes' books and just wept like a baby at the end of my time with it. You know that thing, when you hold a book in your hand and you're crying and going "But he loves her so much!" (I had the same reaction when I finished The Time Traveler's Wife - I'm such a gooey stuffed animal inside, it's embarrassing.) It's a marvel to see the literary techniques and preoccupations mined by the aforementioned hommes grands being used by an awesome (female) writer to such romantic, emotional, plangent ends. (Is it old-fashioned to admit to want to be moved by literature?) This is not to say that Galchen's work isn't intellectually ambitious or conceptually dazzling - because it is. But ultimately this isn't about smarty-pants mental gymnastics or grand epistemological statements - it's that most beautiful of things, an old-fashioned, never-gets-old love story. I'm hoping that Galchen's next work proves to be even more rigorous in terms of actual narrative and old-fashioned storytelling. But I also hope she keeps the keen heart that kept me reading, hoping to get to the core of why you love someone so terribly much that the gravity between you both transcends everything.
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