Rivka Galchen's Twisty Mistaken Identities

Is your wife a fake? Blame the Dopplerganger Effect

"Last December," begins the first, electric sentence of Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, "a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife." Galchen, an Oklahoma-born New Yorker with both a medical degree and an MFA, has a knack for economy: Her opener dishes out theme (love, bereavement, uncertainty), plot (a missing- persons investigation), and tone (hard-boiled surrealism) in a mere 13 words. That this concise alchemy eventually dissipates over the rest of the book does not at all spoil the line-to-line pleasures of her fiction debut. 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 woman in question is Rema, a beautiful, blond Argentinean, "chapped and rosy like freshly sanded wood." Her husband, Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a 51-year-old psychiatrist, has become convinced—almost surely incorrectly— that his wife has been replaced by a fake. Taking recourse in the meteorological studies of a cryptic figure named Tzvi Gal-Chen (who just happens to share a surname with the author), and then in Harvey, one of his own weather-obsessed patients, Liebenstein treks erratically from New York to Patagonia in order to solve the mystery of his wife's disappearance. Like the last-woman-on-earth protagonist of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, Leo frantically examines seemingly unrelated phenomena (a caller with the wrong number, a cavalcade of menacing dogs, a man—or several men— named Anatole) for clues as to the stability of his own mental state, a process he comes to call "the Dopplerganger Effect." Rema—or her simulacrum—chases after him in confusion and despair.


Atmospheric Disturbances
By Rivka Galchen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp., $24

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. As Rema pursues Leo across the globe, we can only empathize with her frustration: Can't this guy just pause for a second and talk to his wife?