When Dr. Leo Liebenstein's wife disappears, she leaves behind a single, confounding clue: a woman who looks, talks, and behaves exactly like her--or almost exactly like her--and even audaciously claims to be her. While everyone else is fooled by this imposter, Leo knows better than to trust his senses in matters of the heart. Certain that the original Rema is alive and in hiding, Leo embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim his lost love.
"Over the sound of milk being steamed I asked, alarmed, 'Do I stare at you?'"
That line is wonderful: "Do I stare" is just a little bit wrong, like many things in the book, and the detail about the steaming milk (in a coffeeshop) is typical of the concise and uncommon descriptive terms Galchen sprinkles throughout the book. The next line is:
"'You are from Hungary?' came from her, now in a louder voice, to the sound of silverware being sorted."
Almost every line of dialogue in the book is similarly exact and off-tone. Galchen's experiments, in that sense, are more in the line of Gertrude Stein, and that is where I hope her next novel takes her: away from the precious and artificial cleverness, and toward more common, everyday, inexcusable weirdness.
The idea of a psychotic narrator (not just an unreliable narrator, but one whose very reliable and predictable -- and in this case professional -- logic is used unremittingly to excuse and obscure his psychosis) is rare, and "Atmospheric Disturbances" belongs with the non-fiction "Memoirs of My Mental Illness." The problem is that "Memoirs" is real -- in it, a lawyer argues that his own psychosis is controllable -- and it is therefore much more serious, not at all campy, and also, incidentally, far more bizarre than "Atmospheric Disturbances." A closer comparison is Tom McCarthy's "Remainder": they are both meditations on loss of identity, and both cushion us from anything too painful by continuous shows of verbal and logical virtuosity. Less virtuosity, and there would be more danger.
Leo, the antagonizing protagonist, has decided to cope with that moment everyone in a long-term relationship experiences--the moment when you look at your partner and think, Who the hell is that? Actually, he decides not to cope with it, by determining that his wife has been replaced by a stranger, rather than accepting that there are things he doesn't and can't know about her. Because, I guess, he's special; I mean, that's really a pompous way to look at things. (Leo so pompous, he wouldn't mind being called pompous. Frankly, if I were his wife, I might try to find a way out from under his overbearing clutches myself, but I wouldn't put another person in as a substitute.)
Every other damn person is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, or patient in this book. Why should the book be any different? Well, it's a book. And it's got a lot of things going on, as Leo tries to find his "real" wife. Maybe she did get replaced--I'm just giving you my grudging reading of the book. And ultimately it is, maybe a little, conceited.
Superficially, the novel opens with psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein's assertion that his wife has been replaced with a simulacum, one who is so close to the original that only the most astute (his) observation could prove otherwise. Ostensibly, the reader is supposed to be clever enough to follow and accept his arguments as truth as well. And so Leo, after failing to convince this doppelganger to admit to her complicity in his real wife's disappearance, takes off on a mission to find the real Rema. His peripatetic journeyings are driven by signs he finds in the scientific (mind numbingly so) writings of meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen and by his disappeared pyschiatric patient Harvey, who believes that he controls the weather in his role as a secret agent.
The secondary characters are essentially incidental to the story, even Rema herself, as Leo's thoughts and feelings reign supreme here, even if the reader has determined that he is suffering from a mental illness (Capgras Syndrome for anyone curious enough to research it). Is this an appropriate conclusion on this reader's part? I can't say for certain but it made Leo slightly more sympathetic to me and so I had to go with it. Because honestly, aside from feeling that the main character was fairly delusional and therefore pitiable, I wasn't engaged by the story at all. It was, quite simply, tedious reading. I understood the line blurring going on between reality and perception and the juxtaposition between the scientific and the emotional but none of this questioning within the framework of a very slight story made for an appealing read. A book which isn't immediately accessible is not necessarily bad but it isn't automatically elevated into the pantheon of worthy and complex writing either, a place to which this particular book seems to aspire too graspingly. Obviously I didn't love this book but there certainly are loads of academicians and much higher brow reviewers who think it's all that and a bag of chips so look widely at the reviews before coming to any conclusions. As for me though, I'm sticking with my assessment: "The emperor's naked."
Leo sets out in search of his true wife and of a patient who has also disappeared. The patient had seemed to have delusions about working for the Royal Academy of Meteorology on a secret project with military implications. A rival group known as the 49 is out to foil things. Have they kidnapped his wife?
As he proceeds on his quest, which takes him to Argentina, Leo consistently psychoanalyzes himself and others in an effort to remain convinced of his own sanity, and Galchen seems to have a firm grasp of the shop talk. But is he really mad, or are all the strange happenings not just in his mind? For much of the novel we tend to opt for the former explanation, but then things start to confirm his "delusions."
Of course I won't reveal the ending, but I will offer a reservation. The novel is disappointing in the amount of work it asks the reader to do to gain a clear picture of how this narrator's mind works and/or how his world turns. At times we wade so far into his brooding that we need hip boots, and we might wonder if it will be worth the effort. And I suspect that for many readers it will not be. Yet, in its best moments, the novel insinuates itself into the tradition of the great writers of distorted realities such Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon, and in fact Galchen's secret society, "49," is probably an homage to Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49."
If "Atmospheric Disturbances" sounds like your thing, you might also try "The Testing of Luther Albright" by MacKensie Bezos. Her protagonist is not as odd as Galchen's, but Luther also has a few screws that need tightening. This is a beautifully crafted psychological study in which everything in the external world correlates with cracks and stresses in Luther's mind. Is the dam he designed defective? Did he err when installing the plumbing in his house? For a controlling person like Luther Albright, these issues are symbolic of flaws in his relationships, or in his perceptions of them. Tension builds slowly, and the inner demons begin to emerge like cracks in a damn, or in the living room plaster.
Both of these are both first novels, and I think that Bezos's is the better crafted.
So starts the story of Dr. Leo Liebenstein and his search for his “real” wife Rema. However, it’s not that easy. As the reader comes to discover, reality is in the eye of the beholder. Is Rema really an imposter? Or is Leo having a crisis such that he can no longer recognize what he once took for granted? That what he has known all along is no longer the same. People change. But in his eyes, she is so different, she has to be another person altogether.
This book has received mixed reviews, and I can understand why. It isn’t for everyone. But…and there’s always a “but”, the mixed reviews come from readers like me who understand many works of literary merit, but not at the level of a professor or professional critic.
In the New York Times and some Lit-Fic blogs, it was received extremely well. And let me tell you, reading those reviews intimidated me about as much as the book did.
This is a first for me.
The reader brings to each book their own voice, the one in their mind that reads the narrative and deciphers its meaning. It is a voice schooled by life experiences as much as academia. And mine, apparently, isn’t up to the task of having to work as hard as I did to try and get through this book.
That doesn’t mean this is a poorly written book with a dismal plot and undeveloped characters. On the contrary, this book cannot be faulted for any of those reasons.
On simple terms, this is a story about relationships: one between a husband and wife and the other, of the person we are and the person we are expected to be. It is about what happens when these relationships break down and how, if not reconciled, we deal with the resulting fall out of loving someone we thought we knew – but didn’t, not completely.
Rating this book wais hard because I’m unsure of it being tarnished by the fact that I’m not cerebral enough to make this book work for me as it has for others. Also, it could be, that I just don’t have the right mindset at the moment to give this book a fair shake.
When the protagonist, New York psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, arrives at this conclusion, he is also dealing with a patient, Harvey, who believes that he is receiving secret orders from the Royal Academy of Meteorology in controlling the world's weather. Leo's "false" wife, Rema, whom he refers to as "the simulacrum", suggests that he pretend to be an agent of the RAM as well, transmitting directions from a meteorologist named Tsvi Gal-Chen. The relationship between this therapeutic fraud and Leo's search for the real Rema are the crux of Galchen's book.
Now, am I right? Those plots, and their intertwining, ought to make for good reading. But Galchen's prose is so dense and convoluted that it was hard to get through the book, much less enjoy it. I don't mind that it's never clear whether Liebenstein is himself suffering from mental illness (some reviews firmly state that he is suffering from Capgras Syndrome, though Galchen is never definite) or whether Rema really has been replaced by a fake. Nor do I mind that it's unclear whether the RAM really is trying to stop a cabal of errant meteorologists. What I do mind is that Galchen never makes me care about the outcome or her characters, so at the end (which is very unsatisfying, by the way) I just felt as though my struggle to finish had been a waste of time.
The fact that Galchen uses her own surname, names a person called "Tsvi" in the acknowledgements, and, as one discovers with a bit of research, has used parts of her father's work and history in her book, could have given the novel extra depth, but in Galchen's hands seems merely self-indulgent.
Unfortunately, every plot development (save one) goes absolutely nowhere and remains unresolved at the book's conclusion. Repeatedly throughout the book, Galchen seems to lose the handle on the story and instead goes for furthering the descent into nonsensical and open-ended devices.
"I saw the blond woman's face in the mirror, and if she appeared to be looking at the same point in the mirror that I was looking at, then actually she was looking at my face in the mirror while I was looking at her face in the mirror, that our faces could be in the same places (in the mirror) depending on just where one was looking from. So she wasn't thinking of, looking at, only herself. Nor was I thinking of just myself. That's just what it seemed like if one didn't account for anticipatable perceptive distortions."
Hmmm....On the other hand. There are little gems sprinkled throughout: "His response was neither random nor spontaneous; it was predetermined by his previous ideas about me; habits of thought are death to truth; I was outside of my habits; and he -- he was wrong." I kinda like that one.
Reminiscent of Kafka's explorations, but not nearly as deftly crafted. A bizarre little book. Strangely memorable.
Leo’s story provides a powerful perspective on a human mind trying desperately to make sense out of a world that no longer makes sense, showing both the pain and the humor that can ensue. Unfortunately, the book as a whole fails to be satisfying, because it does not have the kind of narrative arc one seeks in fiction. Leo, at the end of the tale, has not changed; he is the same man as he was in the opening pages, convinced that the woman in his house is not really his wife, and sad because he can only love the “real” Rema. But perhaps that’s the point: Leo is a very disturbed man, who may never recover.
It’s a really good, interesting and warm piece of writing. A dream novel for a book club- lends itself to endless interpretations and discussions as it’s rife with mind games bridging science and literature.
The novel does have a funny side. The quirkiness of Leo's thoughts and the funny way in which he articulates them provides some relief from the overload of analytical information. There are a few diagrams and formulas included, a technique that always makes me feel like an idiot since I don't understand them.
I noticed one of the tags was “WTF” and I have to agree. I went into this book thinking it was a straightforward missing persons novel so I was dazed and confused during the first half of the book. That's my fault because I never like to read any blurbs about a book that I'm planning to read so I can avoid any spoilers. Eventually I realized that this was a completely different style of book written by an author with a great command of language and writing skill. If you subscribe to the New Yorker and like that style of writing I think you'll enjoy this book.