By Rivka Galchen. HarperCollins Canada, 256 pp, $29.95, hardcover
“Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife,” recounts Leo Liebenstein, a 51-year-old New York City psychiatrist, in the opening lines of Atmospheric Disturbances. “In an oversized pale blue purse—Rema’s purse—she was carrying a russet puppy. I did not know the puppy. And the real Rema, she doesn’t greet dogs on the sidewalk, she doesn’t like dogs at all.”
What? You’ve experienced something like this yourself? Moments, perhaps, when that person—the one you’ve known, loved, and argued with—suddenly felt like a stranger, possibly inferior (older, subtly less attractive, abruptly dog-loving) to the one with whom you were first smitten?
Some burning questions, then: did you decide that your spouse or lover had somehow been
replaced by a look-alike, a double, a simulacrum? Did you begin corresponding with an eminent yet mysterious meteorologist, hoping he’d illuminate your missing person’s whereabouts? Did you journey to, say, southernmost Patagonia in search of your “real” beloved? Liebenstein, the oh-so-possibly unreliable narrator of Toronto-born New Yorker Rivka Galchen’s darkly off-kilter, hilarious, and soulful debut novel, would answer yes to all of the above.
What’s up with Liebenstein? Well, his patient, Harvey, believes himself to be a secret agent who can control the weather, and—in Galchen’s brilliantly mind-messing plotting—the wife-hunting psychiatrist subsequently begins a fantastically bizarre correspondence with meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen (a name curiously similar to that of the author’s late father). Or so it seems. Galchen has a knack for twisting Liebenstein’s view amusingly, chillingly askew: “Are you calling about the marital tension?” he hears a meteorological-academy receptionist ask. “You’re calling about the dog?” Hmm, or was she asking which “extension” he’d like, and whether he was inquiring about “the job”?
“It’s you. It’s you who’s not yourself!” the “impostress” Rema sobs. She lists details: exactly how Liebenstein eats watermelon, that he throws away perfectly good socks. He’s unmoved by her “little show”, unconvinced she is the beautiful Argentine wife he loves, whose hair smells of “cut grass”.
Atmospheric Disturbances is an exquisite, sorrowful excavation of love—and, hey, not many novelists are clever enough to coin a term from Doppler radar and doppelganger: “Dopplerganger effect”. It’s an effect the reader won’t soon forget.