An unprovable theory: Before everything, before finishing her first book, even, a writer makes a certain, unique sound. Perhaps this means that the writer hears a certain sound or is tuned to a certain pitch. That sound can’t be faked or changed; it may be that the difference between writers who fulfill their promise and writers who don’t is that, no matter what they do, those who do just can’t help themselves—they make the sound they make and no other. In her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen is clearly tuned, preternaturally, to the key of Auster, Borges, and perhaps Sebald. Multiple alternate worlds whistle between these lines; characters are loose in their signifiers; things—people, places, identities—appear and disappear in a sort of weird, really smart, obsessive way that is by turns rueful, paranoid, melancholy, clever, and anxious. Indeed, the sentences and situations are endlessly variable, like a Rubik’s cube. If they seem, sometimes, to be turning slightly more from a love of perpetual motion than from any sort of urgency, that may be in Galchen’s favor. This is her sound; this is her way of moving—the girl can’t help it.
The uncanny reigns supreme here. The events in the novel cluster around the (very) strange disappearance of Dr. Leo Liebenstein’s wife, Rema. It is a disappearance, however, that is visible only to him, because Rema’s double, along with a peculiar russet puppy that she carries in her purse, has taken up residence in Liebenstein’s apartment. She looks just like the missing Rema, but she isn’t, Liebenstein is sure, actually her. She is a “simulacrum,” an “impostress,” an interloper who makes tiny but telling mistakes in her imitation of the real Rema. She lies; she drinks her tea the wrong way; her face isn’t quite right. She says telltale impostressish things like “The real is good for deception.” A lover knows, despite any and all appearances to the contrary, and Liebenstein is sure he knows. And since he is a psychiatrist to boot, he feels uniquely qualified to find his way out of this psychotic hall of mirrors called his life. To this end, Liebenstein begins to search, of course, but before the search can even properly get off the ground, Harvey, one of his psychotic patients, also disappears, and a psychotic patient who isn’t Harvey appears, insisting that someone has stolen his leg. Liebenstein perseveres, finding clues in any and all absurd occurrences and coincidences, tracking his missing wife through New York’s Hungarian Pastry Shop, Buenos Aires, Patagonia, and his dreams. Wound through his search is a critical subplot involving the Royal Academy of Meteorology, a meteorologist named Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen, and Doppler radar, which can apparently aid in understanding the appearance of doppelgängers, such as the false Rema. Also, the Royal Academy of Meteorology, which is real in the book (not in the real world, though in the real world, there is actually a Royal Meteorological Society), plays a key role in a highly paranoid fantasy of Harvey’s. Just so we’re clear.
To attempt to follow the clues in this novel is to engage in a fruitless exercise, like trying to climb the stairs in an Escher woodcut. She’s not there, and you can’t find her that way, anyway. As Liebenstein tacks back and forth in increasingly paranoid circuits through his inner and outer worlds—there are diagrams in this novel, found photographs, and a drawing of the Doppler effect—a weight, beautifully, accumulates in the white space. Liebenstein’s profound loneliness is in that unseen weight. The shape that he’s drawing with increasing franticness on the page doesn’t really matter, we begin to see; the tension of the novel derives from everything he has no word or diagram for: his heart, mysteriously forlorn. It is to Galchen’s credit that she never explains what the source of Liebenstein’s melancholy is. Instead, it is as if she sees the universe as divided into frenzied verbal clusters of overdetermined, semidelusional scribbles that are never what they say they are versus a vast, silent expanse of inchoate grief.
It’s a very charming vision, and her clusters are meticulously drawn. But Liebenstein is most heartbreaking not in his ceaseless, involuted motion, but in the small, still moment when, on eating too many butter cookies, he looks at the kitchen ceiling and notices, uncomfortably, that “the shapes that normally morph and merge out upon the random pattern of such a ceiling did not morph and merge for me as I sat there, though I waited for them to do so, even just playfully, but they didn’t, which made it seem as if I’d become the worst kind of literalist . . . as if I really believed in a world . . . where people, oddly enough, meant just what they said.” How Liebenstein eventually makes his way to something like that literalism, or at least a pretty good imitation of it, is the actual trajectory of this existential fairy tale, even as he continues to insist on his version of the really real reality he knows is there, if only he could graph it. This trajectory is quite charming as well, though by the end of the book, I sometimes wished for at least a hint of more random weather, emotional and otherwise, the spontaneous movement of a cloud or burst of sunlight that wasn’t part of some crowded mind’s more or less paranoid system. But overthinking should be the worst thing that happens to a first novelist. Galchen’s idiosyncratic, echo-filled sound comes through loud and clear anyway.
Stacey D’Erasmo’s third novel, The Sky Below, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in January.