The main conceit of Rivka Galchen’s debut novel immediately brings to mind Haruki Murakami’s fascination with peculiar disappearances. In Atmospheric Disturbances, Rema is the woman lost, or so believes her husband, Dr. Leo Lievenstein.
The novel is essentially a slow crescendo of paranoia, a study of the catastrophic effects of what Leo himself calls “a ludicrous and misguided jealousy.” Like Pynchon’s classic heroine Oedipa Mass (meshed with Woody Allen), Leo finds himself engulfed by what he believes to be an epic conflict that possibly involves clandestine international organizations and the replacement of his wife with an impostor. The scope of the ensuing quest (to find his wife, to save the world, to escape his fears?) is grander than Leo, yet is still largely rooted in his own disturbed and insecure psyche.
The breadth of Galchen’s voracious intellectual curiosity is on full display throughout the novel; not only in the frequent psychiatric tangents but also the abundant pop references. One of Leo’s patients even receives encrypted instructions via the New York Post’s Page Six. And Leo himself often submits to streams-of-consciousness: one minute he’s discussing Henry Darger, the next he’s evoking the literature of Borges. Leo (and by proxy Galchen) seems to lack a filter, and this maximalism serves the novel well.
The byzantine plot is meticulously composed and almost Nabokovian in its self-referentiality. It could all come off as heavy-handed were the parallels between the mundane and the metaphysical not so finely woven into the fabric of the story.
Atmospheric Disturbances, in the end, is everything a novel ought to be: it’s about a very specific and captivating life, and it’s about life in the deepest and most expansive of senses. It is at once a microscope and a telescope, a close-up and a panorama. It is about very big things (love, weather, chance) without ever ignoring the specific or the routine. Like Murakami, Galchen seems equally interested and invested in presenting “common” people awash in the extraordinary, and eccentric people who are wholly familiar.