Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

How rare is a truly unreliable narrator? I hadn’t really considered the question before reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works last month, though now I wonder why I never thought of it before. The author almost always informs the reader through the perspective of another character how he/she should read a particular narrative. The easiest example is when a dog is the narrator and mistakes a car for a mechanical horse or something.

That’s why Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances is such an interesting first novel, especially considering this is not the sort of material usually mined by a young female debut novelist.  Dr. Leo Liebenstein opens the narrative with, ‘Last December a woman entered my apartment that looked exactly like my wife.’ From this point forward we foll
ow Leo as he searches for answers to who this impostor is, and how to reconcile all the strange events that seem to be occurring all around him.

Galchen provides Leo with a dispassionate take on the whole adventure, oftentimes separated from any empathy towards others. While his wife is bereft at his inability to accept that she is who she says she is, he maintains a distance that keeps his narration reliably unreliable, yet her dialogue allows the reader to achieve the empathy he is la
cking. This difficult combination is skillfully done, and is the only reason I would recommend that one pick up the novel.

The narrative probably could have been cut a bit; at times I was kind of bored with the pace. The book also contains a character named Tzvi Gal-Chen, a fellow with the Royal Academy of Meteorology, and a sort of lynchpin for analyzing the novel. Rivka Galchen’s father was named Tzvi, and was a meteorologist as well, yet there exists no such body as the Royal Academy of Meteorology. (At least not as depicted.) But rather than tickle me with the blur between fiction/nonfiction like David Benioff’s recent novel did, it annoyed me. I am unable to divine why such a choice was made, and therefore it glares at me as a mistake by the author.

And while I feel Atmospheric Disturbances had some miscues, I truly enjoyed the legitimate unreliable narration that is so rare. It is worth looking into, if only for the devices and not the story.

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