If you read Our Books are Better than We Are, I assume you know about Underwater New York, the online anthology of writing, art and music that I co-edit. We have a load of amazing activities and events coming up this summer, not the least of which is a reading in the Word for Word series at Bryant Park. If that sounds like a big deal to you (perhaps you are imagining years of Project Runway contestants whose lifelong ambition is getting to Bryant Park…), it is! The lineup of readers we assembled is too outrageous to be believed–I would name them all here, but that’s not really what this post is about…oh, who am I kidding: Ed Park, Deb Olin Unferth, Nelly Reifler, Said Sayrafiezadeh, the musician Michael Hearst and one more very special guest!!!
But, really, I mention the reading only to segue into the fact that I am a writer, a small toiling fiction writer and book blogger, who has suddenly taken on the alter-ego of an editor who must contact writers on behalf of her publication. This development has the possibility of becoming a game-changer for this blog. If you scroll back through the archives, you will see entries about books by several UNY contributors, books I rave about like a bit of a fanatic. At the time I wrote those entries, the authors were not people I felt I existed in the same world with–they were not, say, my Facebook friends. Had they been at the time I wrote those posts, I may have tempered my sycophantic tendencies and rants about wanting to become their bestest friends. Or, maybe not. I was just being honest, right?
Rivka Galchen is neither my Facebook friend nor an UNY contributor (yet) but I did write to her regarding UNY and she was lovely. At the time I contacted her, I hadn’t yet read Atmospheric Disturbances–I was reaching out to her based on the assumption I’d like the book because I once attended a panel discussion on which she was a compelling participant. But, feeling like a total impostor emailing her without being totally familiar with her work, I requested Atmospheric Disturbances from the library and it arrived at my local branch–ah, Queens Library–about three long weeks later.
I basically inhaled the book. It went so quickly in part because it was suspenseful–the protagonist, a 50-something psychiatrist named Leo, is convinced that his much younger, beautiful Argentine wife, Rema, has been replaced by a simulacrum or identical copy of herself; I spent the duration of the book trying to determine how unreliable a narrator Leo was, whose version of “reality” was real, whose I WANTED to be real, if anything was going to be sorted out by the end and if I was going to be disappointed if it wasn’t…I read on overdrive because I wanted answers. I won’t reveal whether I got my answers or not, but I will say that I was satisfied at the end–the resolution of the book was sad, beautiful and literary–it soared “out of time,” as Kathleen Hill of SLC would say, expanding up and out and ahead, the equivalent of music surging at the end of a movie while you blot at your cheeks and then keep sitting there, thinking, as the credits roll.
The pace of the book is another reason I finished it so fast–not that the action took place in a condensed period of time, but the structure of the novel was swift and digestible. It was sectioned off into small, numbered and titled segments, a format I enjoy because I feel like it reveals process. When books are structured in this way, I picture clicking the “reveal formatting” button on Microsoft Word and getting a window into what steps it took to create the book. I felt encouraged reading Atmospheric Disturbances, like I was learning something applicable to my own work as I read.
That last point will be hilarious to anyone who had read both this book and my fiction because they have essentially nothing in common. My stories are pretty straightforward, while Ms. Galchen swings postmodern and tricky here, giving a dead/undead meteorological theorist her own last name, including photographs and charts in her text, exercising her linguistic prowess and dropping some seriously erudite references. Ms. Galchen is famously an MD as well as an MFA, but she wasn’t just drawing on her medical training when she zipped from multi-layered Borges allusions to Temple Grandin’s hugging machine to Lacan’s mirror stage–it’s not often in reading a novel that I find myself thankful both for my obsessive research into teaching children with special needs and my old literary theory anthologies. While I appreciated randomly having the background to catch a lot of the references in Atmospheric Disturbances, I don’t think I necessarily would have lost anything without them. By processing them, actually, I may have missed something–Leo, condescending curmudgeon that he sometimes could be, probably wouldn’t have expected me to understand.