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Atmospheric Disturbances, By Rivka Galchen
Intriguing disturbances in the weather – and the mind
Tuesday 24 June 2008
The English love talking about the weather, but they don't write about it enough. We should feel suitably chastened that it has taken a New Yorker to write this intriguing meteorological novel, in which the weather doesn't just set the scene, but drives the hero's every move.
The opening line of Atmospheric Disturbances is one of those marvellous curtain-raisers that seems to roll out the rest of the novel in your mind, while leaving the specifics tantalisingly vague. It runs: "Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife." The narrator is Dr Leo Liebenstein, a middle-aged psychiatrist, lying on his sofa with a migraine when the doppelgänger of his Argentine partner, Rema, walks in. She is dressed in Rema's clothes, and looks and talks like her, but she isn't Rema, not least because she is carrying a small dog, and Rema doesn't like dogs.
The question of whether this is Rema (and so Leo is nuts) or a sinister simulacrum is settled for the reader fairly early. Leo receives a phone call from the Royal Academy of Meteorology, asking him to become a fellow. We already know that Leo has a schizophrenic patient, Harvey, who suffers from the delusion that he works undercover for the Academy, helping them in their true task of controlling the weather. Before long, Leo is flying to Buenos Aires to track down Rema, teaming up with Harvey and emailing his supposed controller at the Academy, Tzvi Gal-Chen – despite the fact that Leo and Rema dreamt up Gal-Chen's covert intelligence role as a way of treating Harvey.
It is clear that Galchen (the author) is writing in a strong tradition of psychologically minded literature that sees the doppelgänger, the paranoiac and the schizophrenic as rich metaphors for more general human conditions. The supposed differences between Rema and her double, and Leo's own alteration, throw into sharp relief the nature of love, and of the self. "We cannot tell what the weather will be tomorrow because we do not know accurately enough what the weather is right now."
This makes the book increasingly poignant, as we watch Leo embrace the thought of "being a player in some tragedy or comedy so much larger than myself", even as his wife sees him recede from reality. Some might bristle at mental illness being co-opted yet again for fashionable metaphors. That aside, this is a diverting and impressive debut.
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