Usually, if I read a review of a book and think it sounds like something I’d love, it isn’t. A recent exception is Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances, surely one of the strangest novels of recent years.
Though the name of Jorge Luis Borges frequently comes up with regards to Galchen’s novel, I think that’s a red herring, a side-effect of part of Atmospheric Disturbances taking place in Argentina. The real name here is Vladimir Nabokov, whose tutelage on the infinite plasticity and intrinsic conflicts of point of view Galchen has chewed up, digested, and spat out to terrifying effect.
The story of a psychiatrist, Leo Liebenstein, whose own psychotic break is the ether through which he, the other characters, and the reader must swim, the very setting in which all the novel’s actions and conflicts play out—he believes his wife has been replaced by a perfect copy; he believes that an obscure climate scientist is sending him secret instructions; that one of his patients is an agent who holds clues to his wife’s whereabouts. There is no “outside” to his perspective, very little ability to see around his account of the world. Unlike Leo, the reader understands that he is crazy—but this turns out to be no real advantage, as we strain to puncture his delusions and learn something of the pain which is its source.
Any number of writers could have played this game, run this experiment. What Galchen does is make us feel as invested as the characters in Leo’s unraveling, and in the possibility, however dim, of his return to lucidity. Nabokov made us sob uncontrollably for the lovesickness and grief of a pedophile; Galchen keeps us wound tight with anxiety, desperately waiting for some ray of hope for a man with a badly damaged mind and heart.