L'ho trovata ieri recensita sulla Book Review del New York Times e ho anche trovato su Bookslut una bella intervista all'autrice di Atmospheric Disturbances (Perturbazioni atmosferiche) Rivka Gelchen. Della Galchen la rivista superintellettuale The Believer ha pubblicato un saggio dedicato alle ipotesi degli universi multipli legati alle teorie della meccanica quantistica (gulp, anche questo non c'entra molto con la radio, ma nemmeno con la politica quindi spero non vi offendiate come è accaduto in questi giorni a qualcuno).
Visto che ormai sui giornali è tutto un pullulare di suggerimenti per letture da spiaggia, prendetela come un mio personale suggerimento alla cieca. Qualcosa mi dice che verrà tradotto presto anche in Italia.
July 13, 2008
Who Do You Love?
By LIESL SCHILLINGER
ATMOSPHERIC DISTURBANCES By Rivka Glachen. 240 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.
In one of his best-known jokes (anti-joke is closer to it), the unsmiling comedian Steven Wright says, in a monotone: “I woke up one day and everything in the apartment had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica. I said to my roommate, ‘Can you believe this? Everything in the apartment has been stolen and replaced with an exact replica.’ He said, ‘Do I know you?’ ” This existential conundrum — the question of what makes an original different from a copy (and how anyone can prove that he is who he thinks he is once the matter is called into doubt) — is both the springboard and the ensuing spring of “Atmospheric Disturbances,” a brainy, whimsical, emotionally contained first novel by Rivka Galchen, a young M.D. turned M.F.A.
Galchen’s narrator, a fussy 51-year-old psychiatrist named Leo Liebenstein, believes that his beautiful, much-younger Argentine wife, Rema, has been replaced by a “doppelgänger,” a “simulacrum,” an “impostress,” an “ersatz” spouse. “Last December,” Leo explains, “a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” Like his wife, the newcomer has the same “wrinkly boots,” the same Argentine accent with “the halos around the vowels,” the “same baby blue coat with jumbo charcoal buttons, same tucking behind ears of dyed corn silk blond hair. Same bangs cut straight across like on those dolls done up in native costumes that live their whole lives in plastic cases held up by a metal wire around the waist.” The idea that this cockatiel of a woman could not be the Rema in question is absurd, but the evidence of Leo’s eyes and ears doesn’t persuade him. “Same everything, but it wasn’t Rema,” he maintains. “It was just a feeling, that’s how I knew.”
So far, this could be farce, trompe l’oeil, Ionesco, Magritte. But the story quickly changes course. Seeking a logical explanation for the presence of the interloper (it can’t be a case of “Rema-based psychosis,” he conveniently concludes), Leo delves into the research of a quasi-paranormal scientific association called the Royal Academy of Meteorology, in particular the publications of a man named Tzvi Gal-Chen, whose work on Doppler radar, “initial value problems” and “atmospheric modeling” may contain the key to the “real” Rema’s disappearance. Tzvi Gal-Chen has his drawbacks: for one thing, he appears to be dead; for another, the “fake” Rema may be impersonating him; but at least he’s accessible by e-mail. Also, Gal-Chen once presented a scientific paper in Buenos Aires, and Rema was born there. Could these two random occurrences be related? Leo hops a plane to Argentina to find out, using Gal-Chen’s research on retrieving “thermodynamic variables from within deep convective clouds” to guide his own blundering “attempts at retrieval” of the “real” Rema. No, this is not chick lit.
It’s unusual — in fact (why be coy?), it’s extremely rare — to come across a first novel by a woman writer that concerns itself with such quirky, philosophical, didactic explorations; a novel in which the heart and the brain vie for the role of protagonist, and the brain wins. While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective (Leo registers Rema’s distress with detachment, recording it but not feeling it), the book’s descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception: Rema’s hair has the “smell of grass”; a woman has “wet cement eyes”; a ’70s shirt with a butterfly collar has “pearline” fasteners. This attention to detail doesn’t pass without comment. Rema teases Leo for the attention he pays to clothes, while Leo mocks his mother’s “excessive aesthetic sensitivity” even as he tries to dictate the color, fabric and buttons of a new coat for a Rema clone in Patagonia.
Galchen’s inventive narrative strategies call to mind the playful techniques of Jonathan Lethem, Franz Kafka, Primo Levi and Thomas Pynchon. But she also, quite deliberately, echoes the Argentine giant Jorge Luis Borges. Like Borges, she sabotages concepts of identity, reality and place, fraying her protagonist’s ties to all three. Like Borges, she makes Argentina her favored locale for memory retrieval. And, as Borges often did, she gives her own name to a character. But there’s a still more obvious link: in his short story “Borges and I,” Borges complains of an identity crisis akin to Leo’s — albeit a crisis over his own identity, not someone else’s. There are two different Borgeses, he explains: the other Borges shares his tastes, “but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor.” In “Atmospheric Disturbances,” Leo’s deprecating attitude toward the Rema imitator resembles Borges’s attitude toward his double. Galchen operates on Borges’s conceit, adapting it, expanding on it, giving it a new face.
If this were a different kind of novel, the central mystery wouldn’t revolve around puzzles of identity, subjectivity and objectivity. It would concern itself with the question of how an unpleasant, middle-aged, Aspergic loner like Leo Liebenstein ever managed to bag a dishy wife like Rema, with her warmth, her youth, her enticing rhythmic gait, her way of giving people “the impression that she loves them in a very personal and significant way.” In fairness, this thought had occurred to Leo. The first time the two met was at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Manhattan. After speaking to her, ascertaining her nationality and noticing that she wasn’t edging away from him, Leo courted her by shrewdly avoiding the mention of Borges, so as not to “appear showy.” Because of this reticence, because of a mille-feuille sugar high, or for some other unknown reason, Rema succumbed to his suit. And yet, years into the marriage, Leo remains on perpetual alert, unsure of true possession, his antennae quivering to pick up any signal that Rema has discovered she’s out of his league and acted on this knowledge. He pretends he isn’t jealous. “I didn’t necessarily know at every moment exactly where she was or what, precisely, in Spanish, she said over the phone to people who might very well have been perfect strangers to me,” he admits. But that alone doesn’t mean that she “was, or is, in love with some, or many, other people.”
How reassuring. And yet, like the tormented narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel “The Good Soldier” — who longed to believe that his marriage was sound and that his wife was “a goodly apple,” and who began to regard other people as “incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths” — after learning of her infidelity, Leo is haunted by doubts. The difference here is that Leo has betrayed himself, pre-emptively robbing himself of the possession he most values to protect himself against its loss. “Who can ever really know about anyone’s happiness, even one’s own?” he rationalizes. A true scientist, he argues, must be willing to accept “unwelcome and confounding data,” to “make discoveries that shatter one’s most deeply held beliefs.” Maybe, he adds, “we discover that a man is not an expert on himself.” Whether or not this is true, it’s certain that a hologram can’t cheat on you.
In a different kind of novel, we would sit back and watch Leo gaslight himself into wrecking his marriage, from time to time stealing glimpses through a peephole at Rema’s secret activities, if any. But Galchen and her narrator prefer radar to romance. Leo likes to picture Rema’s duplicates as figures on a Doppler weather radar pattern. “Let us imagine a source from which a Rema look-alike emerges every second,” he posits. If he “begins walking toward the source of Remas, then a Rema will pass by me more frequently than every second, even though Remas are still exiting the source at the precise rate of one per second.” He calls this the Dopplerganger effect. Immersed in one of these experiences, Leo scrutinizes the Rema mimic, noticing “fine lines of age on her face. Tiny crow’s-feet, and not just when she smiled. ... This look-alike Rema, I began to realize, was not such a perfect look-alike; it would seem Rema was being played by someone older. ... Someone pretty, but not as pretty.” Rema may not have taken a lover, but she has been manhandled by time.
You don’t have to be a weatherman to see that Galchen’s brainteasing book, whatever its pretexts, is an exploration of the mutability of romantic love. Although she has intellectualized and mystified her subject, intentionally obscuring it in a dry-ice fog of pseudoscience, the emotional peaks beneath her cloud retain their definition. The reader senses Rema’s anguish, whether or not Leo has empathy for it. Captive to his soothing psychosis, Leo can’t see his wife as anything but an impersonator, her voice “less sharp, less fiercely lovable, less accented than Rema’s,” her grip too firm, her hair incorrectly styled. He tells her, “I’ve met complete strangers who remind me more of Rema than you do,” but he’s the stranger. “It’s you,” Rema sobs, “It’s you who’s not yourself.” Anyone who has suffered the everyday calamity of the lessening of love, the infinitesimal diminutions of regard that drain a relationship of its power, knows what a relief it would be to blame science fiction. This cerebral, demanding, original new writer helps make the charges stick.