Monday, August 11, 2008


I think that this is the second time I have read a book primarily due to a favorable review in "The New Yorker". Given that I have been a happy subscriber for about four years, that isn't such a good record. However, given that these two books have been among the best I've ever read, it's a phenomenal record.

The first was for Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore," a mind-blowing book that has not only established its place on my all-time favorite list, but also opened up an entire collection of books that can keep me happy and busy for years.

The second is Rivka Galchen's "Atmospheric Disturbances." It cannot emulate the first discovery, because this is a debut novel, and so there are no other stories I can turn to now that it's done. However, it is like the first in that it seems to have been tailor-made to please me.

After you've heard me talk about books for long enough, you'll get a really good idea of what sort of things I enjoy. The same words will keep cropping up: "strange," "funny," "bizarre," "atmospheric," "dark," and "disturbing" probably top the list. You can get some elements of these in most fiction, but it's extremely rare for an author to go full-bore on the weirdness factor... most authors seem to believe that a little strangeness can add mystery and drama, but that too much will alienate the reader, and so they inevitably shirk back from truly exploring the limits of what they can do. This is probably a perfectly sound judgement on their part, even if it isn't what I want... I'm almost certainly in the minority when it comes to taste in literature, and most people probably have limited tolerance for aggressively odd writing.

There are just a few people who can really pull it off. The original and most natural land to explore is that of fantasy... if you're writing about a different universe, then you're free to invent your own rules and to revel in the ways the world is unlike our own. Sadly, most fantasy authors are lacking in imagination or writing ability or both, and so their books become a chore rather than a celebration.

Once someone decides not to write in the fantasy idiom, they are implicitly casting their lot in with our own universe, which has rules and standard that we all know. Within this context, how can you do something truly creative and boundary-breaking?

The most widely practiced style is what usually is called "magical realism." These are stories that are told in a straightforward manner and set in the real world, yet contain events that both the author and the reader know are impossible. This creates a kind of meta-tension, in that the reader is not certain how to react to these events, how they are meant to understand the story. Is it a dressed-up fantasy? An allegory? Something else? I do enjoy these tales, and admire the primarily Hispanic authors who come up with them.

In a pinch, you could fit Murakami into this category, although in my opinion he is operating on another plane. Still, the one-sentence distillation of his method is "impossible things happen to boring people," and so if you're looking at plot as opposed to style, he fits right in.

There is another approach to the problem of strangeness: make your book primarily about writing instead of about a story. This is known as postmodernism, and can be a lot of fun. This style has a kind of hyper-awareness about it, where the author and reader both become characters within the story, and the story becomes about itself. Because the story isn't really about the world, the author is freed to do whatever he wants without penalty; think of Vonnegut walking into the cocktail bar in the climax of "Breakfast of Champions." As a reader, we smile at these impossibilities (or, okay, sometimes rage), because the author has let us in on the joke. The "real world" is revealed to just be fiction, and so the only rules to break are those the author chooses.

I'd argue that we can have still one more escape from the problem of predictable books, one that is similar to but distinct from postmodernism. For lack of a better phrase, I'll call it "exuberance": an author who is so impassioned and takes such obvious delight in his words that they rush onto the page in a gleeful torrent. My favorite example of this style is Neal Stephenson. His science fiction books were obviously set in a future world, and so he could make silly plot choices (hacker pizza driver for the mafia who wants to be a concert promoter) with impunity. When he turned to early modern Europe for the Baroque cycle, he no longer had that easy out, but he just breezed on: when he thought something would be especially cool, he just tossed it into the book, no matter how strange it might seem. He never apologizes by inventing painful excuses for why they happen, nor does he broadly wink at the reader and say "You and I both know that this is absurd and not really part of the story;" no; you can practically hear him saying, "golly, wouldn't it be cool if...!" and then putting pen to paper. And so we get pirate kings sailing galleons made of gold, a tulip fortune that topples the King of England, and more delightful digressions than I've seen anywhere else.

And that's it! A grand total of four, more or less, ways to write a really fun, unhinged book. Otherwise you always keep one foot firmly planted in the real world and leave Chris unsatisfied.

Except now there are five. "Atmospheric Disturbances" creatively circumvents the normal boundaries, and manages to come up with a story that is filled with exciting fantastic details WHILE FULLY BELONGING TO OUR REAL PRESENT WORLD. How does Galchen accomplish this? To answer, I'll courteously dip into some


The solution is obvious in retrospect: she uses an insane first-person narrator. I don't know if anyone has done this before... it seems like they must have, but other than Joyce and Poe I can't think of a good example, and they didn't put it to as rich of use as she has. For a full 250 or so pages, every word we hear comes from the splintering, rationalizing mind of Leo, a New York psychiatrist who has cracked.

While I never would have read this book if it hadn't been for the New Yorker, I do kind of wish that I hadn't read the review, just because I'm curious how long it would have taken me to catch on to what's happening. Leo is highly educated and at least slightly sympathetic; given that this is a novel, I would probably have bought into his declarations for at least a few chapters. Still, the book is undeniably strange from the very first sentence, when Leo encounters a woman who looks, sounds, and acts exactly like his wife. I was wondering, "Why does he think that she is NOT his wife," whereas I think a normal reaction of mine would have been to wonder, "What happened to his real wife?"

I think that it would ultimately have been Leo's interactions with other people that tipped me off, and not the incredibly dense and paranoid monologues that he delivers directly to the reader. I'm used to eating that stuff up whole, but when a person starts saying strange things, mishearing others, spilling stuff, and jumping to conclusions about people he just met ("That man is walking dogs? Maybe he is sleeping with my wife!"), it gives me more pause.

I did find myself thinking back to my abnormal psychology class a lot during this book. Sanity in general is an interesting topic to me, and I find myself where the boundaries lie between "normal," "eccentric," and "insane." In my abnormal psych class, the professor explained all psychological disorders in terms of how they affect interpersonal relationships. The "normal" person can fully experience and enjoy a full range of emotional and casual relationships; the "neurotic" person functions well in society but has trouble in a few discrete areas (like romance or family ties); the "borderline" person is generally fragmented and has difficulty with all their relationships; and the "psychotic" person has a terminal break with reality. I really liked this way of looking at disorders, since it doesn't try to peer into the mysterious inner workings of the mind, but rather at the observable and verifiable behaviors that a person engages in.

Within that framework, I'd say (as someone who is grossly unqualified to evaluate others' mental health - hooray for having taken a grand total of two semesters of psychology!) that by the time the book starts Leo is a stage 5 psychotic with paranoid delusions; but this wasn't a huge shift. As the book goes on he occasionally talks about his earlier life, and you can see (and sympathize) that he was never all that well to begin with. Other than Rema, he doesn't have a single friend in the whole world; as far back as college, he was awkward and unsatisfied in his relationships. Even now, he utterly refuses to think about his father at all, and while he justifies every action he ever makes, it's pretty clear that he does not have a strong track record of making good decisions.

Hmm, I didn't mean to write so much about sanity. It's really interesting, but what I especially love within this book is not just the thing itself, but the door it opens. Paranoid schizophrenics live in our world, but their minds are not limited by our world, and so if you put one in the driver's seat, there are no limits to what can happen.

It's a really interesting tension, actually. Leo thinks and experiences many things that never happen, but also many that do, and it's a fun puzzle to try and disentangle what's real from what's not. At times I was reminded of C. S. Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters," a book that was very different from this, but that required a similar amount of diligence on the part of the reader: the narrator is your adversary, and at the same time your only source of information, and so you must take everything they say and carefully sieve it for the right meaning.

And just what fun bizarre stuff happens in this book? Well, a lot of it doesn't get cranking until near the end, so let's call these


If there's one thing I love more than a bizarre story, it's a bizarre story with a conspiracy theory; preferably a shadowy secret society that means to control the world. Ergo Thomas Pynchon's permanent position on my list of favorites. Well, this is right in keeping with most schizophrenics' world view, and so the fractured plot of this book deals mainly with a sinister secret organization, and a corresponding heroic public organization that opposes it.

Galchen gratefully pays homage to Pynchon: her secret group is called "The Quantum 49 Fathers." She could have chosen any number, or no number at all, but in this context one immediately thinks of "The Crying of Lot 49," and gives props. In that book, part of what was so wonderful about Pynchon's secret society Tristero was how it was simultaneously sinister, specific, and mundane. When people invoke secret societies, they tend to go the opposite route: think of the Illuminati, which people are very vague about, except that it controls the world. In contrast, Tristero had a very specific and no more comprehensible identity, one that orbited around arguably the most banal activity in modern society: the delivery of postal mail.

The Quantum 49 Fathers occupy a similar sort of well-defined role: they are very specifically seeking to control the weather. While their goals are simple (manipulate crop futures and make lots of money), their methods are anything but, and involve extra-dimensional shenanigans. Standing opposed to the Quantum 49 is the Royal Academy of Meteorology. In one of my favorite details in this book, the "good guys" in the Academy have the responsibility of increasing chaos in the world: where the Quantum 49 seek to turn the weather into a deterministic and controlled system, the Royal Academy fights to preserve the unpredictability and randomness of our world. I just love that! It's also yet another tip of the hat to Pynchon, whose writings are all so involved with the concept of entropy.

Anyways: that's enough for a gripping good yarn, isn't it? Even the outlines of the plot can mirror that of a more conventional story: Leo starts out skeptical of the Quantum 49, and increasingly "uncovers evidence" that shows that they are behind the "disappearance" of Rema, and gradually grows committed to his cause and even heroic in his own twisted way. You, as the reader, get to enjoy the story from both angles: one where it's a mystery/conspiracy tale, and one where it chronicles a man's spiralling descent into madness. Both are fun, and they support each other throughout.

Oh, and I should mention that not only does this book have an awesome plot and a really cool framing device: it's also really well written. Galchen's prose is sharp and effective, and she makes Leo's rambling mind utterly believable and entertaining. Again, it's a little frustrating that she hasn't written anything else, because I'm curious how much of this book is really "her" style, and how much it is driven by her interpretation of the character's voice. After a debut like this, I imagine (hope!) that I won't need to wait long for a second book to answer that question.

One thing I really appreciate about the book, and that is fully appropriate, is that it does not solve all the mysteries. Leo makes certain discoveries, and you as the reader can figure out more, but the book opens more questions than it answers. Some of these are deliberately unknowable - for example, whether Rema's father left or was abducted. (Tangent: I LOVE the recurring thematic meditations on the theme of disappearance, and especially Leo's angry rejection of that work - it's interesting how often we say "disappear", when of course things don't really disappear, they just are moved while we are not observing them.) More tantalizing are some things that it seems like we should be able to figure out, but I at least cannot do so. Some of the biggest ones that come to mind are:

1. Who are Leo and Harvey corresponding with under the monicker "Tzvi"? My working theory had been that he initially was writing the real Tzvi, and after the rejection, Leo developed a split personality and wrote the replies himself. Obviously, this isn't possible if Tzvi is dead, and if it wasn't Tzvi in the first place, then it could very well have been the same impostor throughout. Was it always Leo? Harvey's observations about Tzvi sounding like Leo would lend credence to this, but it doesn't explain why the initial message was negative and the last were autoreplies. Always Rema? I do like this idea, but there's little evidence to support it, and I don't see her encouraging Harvey to go work on his own. Some random person whose email they stumbled across? An intriguing idea, but again, it's hard to reconcile the shift in voice between the early emails and the later ones.

2. Who was Leo really speaking with when he thought he was talking to the Royal Academy? At first I'd wondered if the entire conversation had been invented, but the scene in the park towards the end indicates that there was at least a kernel of reality there, one that he built a fantasy around. I should probably re-read his account of the conversation about the job; perhaps he dialed through to a real person in the real Academy, picked up on some phrases, and invented the rest.

3. On a similar note, who called Leo and said they were from the Academy? It seems very possible and even likely that he hallucinated the content of this call - throughout the book, Leo mishears what people say - but it would be intriguing if it was not. The "fight" over the phone is equally interesting. I have to wonder if Harvey was somehow involved.

4. Speaking of which, while there may not be anything more to know about Harvey, I still get the feeling that he may not have said everything. How did he get from Oklahoma to Argentina? His mystery is tied up with Tzvi's, who is the bond that brings doctor and patient back together, making it all the more important to discover who he is.

5. On a meta-level, I'm still trying to decide what Rivka Galchen meant by creating and naming Tzvi Gal-Chen. Is Tzvi meant to be the author? Such a move would strongly align her with mainstream postmodernism. Or is it more of a meta joke? That would put her more in the company of exuberant writers. Would she claim that it doesn't mean anything? That would be disappointing and distracting.


What's the takeaway? If you're part of the tiny minority of people like me who enjoy reading odd books, and think that stranger is always better, than I can enthusiastically endorse this book. It's also a good read if you're interested in talented modern fiction technique, in psychological fiction, or enjoyed "The Crying of Lot 49." If you aren't sure - well, it's just about 250 pages and a quick read, so you could do far worse. It might mess with your head, so that's either good or bad based on your tastes. Personally, I enjoy going down the rabbit hole, and look forward to doing it again.


  1. Interesting musings! I adored this book too.

    Two quick points; actually, three, mostly learned from Googling around --

    1. Did you read Galchen's short story in the New Yorker, The Region of Unlikeness? Very much up your alley.

    2. On your question #5: It turns out that Tzvi Gal-Chen was the name of Galchen's father; and he was a meteorologist, and wrote a book on "mesoscale meteorology." (See the Bookslut interview) And he died in 1994. Here's the forward to a memorial issue of the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences.

    which brings me to:
    3. On your question #1: This inclines me to think that Leo and Harvey are communicating, in some sense, with Rivka Galchen. She's the one who's resurrected her dead father for this book, and is communicating under his name. Maybe a little too cute, but it kind of fits together. Whether that's Rivka Galchen the author, or Rivka Galchen the fictional daughter of the fictionalized Tzvi Gal-Chen, I dunno.

    - Eric

  2. D'oh! I should have done some Googling myself before posting this. Well, it's good to know that others can step in and pinch-hit research. :-)

    Oooh, no, I missed that story. Will read soon. I'm not as good as I should be about reading fiction from the magazine.

    Cool, thanks for the info on Tzvi! I agree that it would be a bit too cute for Rivka to be the mysterious emailer, but it certainly does work within the context of the book.