A Relative Stranger

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, June 1, 2008


By Rivka Galchen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 240 pp. $24

Rod Serling, strolling through a gallery of distorted portraits, should introduce Rivka Galchen's first novel. Atmospheric Disturbances takes place in the twilight zone of Leo Liebenstein's highly rational but utterly deluded mind. He's a middle-aged psychiatrist confounded by a strange problem: "A woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife," he tells us on the opening page. "Same everything, but it wasn't Rema." This "impostress" or "simulacrum," as he refers to her throughout the novel, looks exactly like his young wife, imitates her Argentine accent perfectly and possesses all her memories and attitudes. But he knows she isn't Rema. "Something was extraordinarily wrong," he explains. "It was just a feeling, that's how I knew." Because he loves her, "obviously and entirely and singularly," he tells us, "I had to go and search for the real Rema."

This sounds weird, of course, and it is -- deliciously so -- but on another level, it's common: After all, lots of people eventually conclude that their spouse isn't the person they once married. What husband, in a petty moment, hasn't shared Leo's cruel appraisal: "It would seem Rema was being played by someone older, or who at least looked older. Someone pretty, but not as pretty." What Galchen has done is play out that sad realization in the mind of a psychotic psychiatrist, a man thoroughly versed in others' delusions but unable to perceive his own.

The result is a steady descent into madness confidently reinforced by the methods and language of science. There are a few diagrams, a formula now and then, and some references that will remind you of things you've forgotten from high school. In fact, if you plot Atmospheric Disturbances on a piece of graph paper -- the kind of pseudo-scientific approach Leo would recommend -- you'll notice a trend line running through recent novels such as Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Samantha Hunt's The Invention of Everything Else. These brilliant young women infuse their stories with the language and tropes of scientific disciplines. They manage to appropriate the mystique of science, producing novels that seem somehow grounded in fundamental laws, even while satirizing the confident function that science plays in modern life.

Galchen received a medical degree with an emphasis in psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a background that allows her to describe Leo's professional life as convincingly as she describes his descent into psychosis. Wandering around New York looking for his "real" wife, Leo challenges our objections in the most self-assured but absurd ways: "Why should I believe, just by fiat, that this woman was Rema, when that ran contrary to the phenomenology?" True to his academic training, he throws himself into systematic research with appropriate "experimental controls." This amounts to sitting in the library and writing random words on notecards: "HERONS," "WOOL PROCESSING," "HERMOCHROMATOSIS." Guffaw if you will, but he won't be dissuaded: "The way I proceeded with my investigation might cause me to lose credibility before mediocre minds," he admits. "I wasn't actually developing the detachment of a disordered psychotic -- I just wanted to concentrate, to stick to the business at hand."

What remains so unsettling, and often funny, about Leo is the way his intelligent observations slip into looniness. This tendency is most dramatically on display during his psychological treatment of a young man with "a fixed magical belief that he had special skills for controlling weather phenomena." In a misguided attempt to limit the man's dangerous behavior, Leo poses as a meteorologist -- Tzvi Gal-Chen, chosen at random from a list of leading scientists. This unorthodox technique appears to work at first, but very quickly Leo is caught in his patient's fantasy and becomes convinced that the real Gal-Chen must have something to do with the disappearance of his wife.

The novel's central, twisted metaphor revolves around Gal-Chen's work with Doppler weather radar. Leo clearly and correctly explains its operative principle as "the change perceived by an observer who is, relative to the wave source, in motion," such as the rising pitch of the sound of an approaching car. "Doppler effect refers to these distorted perceptions," he says, "and Doppler radar's utility relies on savvy interpretations of these distortions that, properly understood, enable a more accurate understanding of the real world." So far, so sane, but then suddenly Leo applies this phenomenon to his perception of his wife: "Let us imagine a source from which a Rema look-alike emerges every second. If the source is stationary, and I am stationary, then every second one of these Remas will pass me by." In one of the novel's innumerable loopy but cerebral moments, Leo announces what he calls the "Dopplerganger effect."

There are other, darker puns and doubles lurking in these pages, though their intention isn't always clear. The second half of the novel, for instance, takes place in Argentina, where the search for someone who has disappeared echoes the country's tragic recent history. And though there's no clue of it in the book, the author's father, who died in 1994, was a meteorologist named Gal-Chen.

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. How many perfectly sane people trudge along, hoping they can learn to love the stranger in the house -- or find the person they married? ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at

© 2008 The Washington Post Company