Rivka Galchen’s “Atmospheric Disturbances” is like a large, white onion—many-layered and sharp and makes one blink the eye rapidly, in wonderment.
Very simplistically, it’s the story of a search for a missing person. Or, if one looked at it upside down, it could be about atmospheric changes that are orchestrated.
Leo Liebenstein, a middle-aged psychiatrist, wakes up one night and finds his wife gone. The void is quickly filled by a simulacrum, by a woman who looks, walks, and talks exactly like her, but isn’t her.
Barely a few days prior to her disappearance, a delusional patient goes off the radar as well.
Convinced that he’s been recruited as a secret agent by the elusive Royal Academy of Meteorology, he sets out on a clandestine mission to rescue the planet from a meteorological sabotage.
A mysterious mafia outfit called “49 Quantum Fathers” has a vested interest in tampering with the formation of clouds, the scale of precipitation, the frequency of snowfall, the strength of sunlight.
Egged on by his doppelganger wife, the good doctor goes into a role-playing mode, donning the cloak of a higher-ranking operative. He tells his patient that he reports to a don in the field of meteorology, a scientist named Tzvi Gal-Chen. He hopes that the ruse will cure him.
The entry of this character makes the novel the literary equivalent of a photo-realistic image, where reality intrudes into fiction.
Tzvi Gal-Chen is the author’s real-life father. From here onward, the unseen man appears to guide every movement of Liebenstein, or so he believes.
A vital clue, embedded in a ground-breaking paper, read by the scientist in Buenos Aires, decides for him the place to begin his quest. The quixotic voyage from New York to the Argentinean capital doesn’t, however, retrieve his spouse.
A delicious off-beat yarn, for sure. But it gets better, geekier, and more thought-provoking.
Its true hero, one realizes, in a flashbulb moment, isn’t the shrink, but the invisible Gal-Chen. Seemingly an invisible player, making only a handful of appearances in the pages, through e-mails from the “other world,” his presence pervades the entire book, from start to finish. He’s the center of gravity, the fulcrum, from whom all others radiate out and cycle back to.
Galchen, the author, inserts a doze of metaphysics here. Communication from the deceased Gal-Chen begs one to ponder the question of whether the dead can send e-mails to the living.
By the time one puts the book down, one is left puzzling over what really went on with Liebenstein.
One of three possibilities is on array: (1) unable to come to terms with the loss of his wife, it was he, who’d created the simulacrum in his head; (2) his loss of mental equilibrium sent him on an imaginary journey to find her, when, in reality, she’d never left his side; or (3) people in two parallel universes are accidentally transposed. The Liebenstein in “Universe A” gets accidentally linked with his wife in “Universe B.”
It’s a wonderful, idea-driven book. But the style, in the last 60-odd pages, gets a bit soporific, with labyrinthine sentences, some eight lines long that defy deciphering. The chapter titles, equally lengthy, aren’t just inspired by the scholarly works of her father, but are, in fact, lifted from them, in toto.
Go figure this one out: “A Method For Calculating Temperature, Pressure And Vertical Velocities From Doppler Radar Observations.” Far from giving the reader a hint of what’s to follow, they perplex. Maybe, that’s the writer’s way of messing with the reader’s head.
If you’re science-fiction nerd, then, this is certainly your book. If not, it’s still worth reading.