Rivka Galchen’s Twisty Mistaken Identities


“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 Leo Liebenstein, a 51-year-old psychiatrist, has become convinced—almost surely incorrectly— that his wife has been replaced by a fake.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.

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?