June 2008

Mark Doten


An Interview with Rivka Galchen

In Rivka Glachen's debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, a psychiatrist discovers that his wife, Rema, has been replaced with an almost perfect double. The appearance of this doppelgänger, imposter, this "Ertaz Rema" -- an incidental pleasure of the book is seeing how many synonyms Galchen can find for "double" -- who claims in fact to be the real Rema, sends the protagonist on a quest that leads him from the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan to Buenos Aires and Patagonia, hunting for the authentic wife that he has reason to believe has fallen into the clutches of a world-wide, perhaps even multiverse-spanning, weather manipulation syndicate. 

Communication with the dead, theories of infinite universes, The Royal Academy of Meteorology, and one Tzvi Gal-Chen are all part of the novel's ingeniously constructed plot. In spite of these wild ingredients, it's a calm, inward work, held together by the even-tempered and relentless intellection of the protagonist. As the book review cliché runs, this is a "remarkably assured debut." More than that, Atmospheric Disturbances is a fiercely inventive meditation on love, a serious page-turner, and a filebin of weird and beautiful sentences. 

I sat down with Galchen at the Hungarian Pastry Shop -- one of the novel's Morningside settings -- for coffee and cookies and the following chat.

You wrote for The Believer on the "many worlds Interpretation" of quantum mechanics -- which also plays a role in your book. Where is the scientific consensus on that these days? Are there many universes?

There was recently a 50th anniversary symposium on the subject at Oxford. The BBC made a documentary that seemed to say that there was almost no debate, that everyone takes it as the reality. But it does have pretty big flaws, especially in probability theory. It's an emotionally appealing idea, but it's still open to debate. 

If there are infinite universes created by every...

Decision point.

Right, decision point, does that mean that there's a parallel universe where, right now, everything is the same except that half my face is covered in purple polka dots and there's an elephant sitting at the corner table, flapping its wings?

Yeah, I think that is what it means.

Thank you! I've asked scientists about that and they never answer my question.

There are also universes where the laws of our universe don't apply.

But that would mean that there'd have to be one -- or infinite ones -- where the "many worlds interpretation" didn't obtain! Hmmm, suddenly we're sucked into a black hole of interpretive vertigo... in other science news, there's also a lot of meteorology in your book. How much do you actually know about the subject?

I'm interested in it, but I'm more interested in gross misappropriations of the authoritative language of science. It feels rife with clarity, and yet you don't understand what it means. And I think that's beautiful. 

Your narrator repeatedly uses the term "initial value problem," which suggests that we can't accurately project the future because we don't know where we are in the present. He applies the term to the world at large, but seems to have a pretty large blank spot when applying it to himself. I reread Dostoevsky's The Double after I read your book and one thing the two books have very much in common is that both your narrator and Golyadkin are continually self-analyzing...

But to no avail.

Right, there are these huge blank spots in their self-analysis.

In my own experience, the one person I feel like I have the least epistemological access to is me. If I hear my voice on an answering machine, I'm shocked, it's awful. My mom, for instance, can perfectly analyze people around her, but it's like she doesn't even know who she is. I see it all the time. I do it all the time, too.

One of my favorite passages in the book has the narrator sitting across from a woman who is crying. We get an extended mental digression from him on how to emotionally distance oneself from crying people. Finally the woman says something, and he looks down, and he realizes that he's been compulsively eating red pistachios, and his fingers are covered in red coloring, and it occurs to him that he must have been making the loudest cracking and sucking noises while she was crying. 

That kind of moment holds a lot of interest for me in life in general. I find it seductive when someone is like that. I have a lot of friends who are deeply awkward, and I'm kind of seduced by the things that cripple them. But it's also a little bit cruel, even though it's seductive and interesting.

Speaking of cruelty, you committed something of a capital crime in the novel, referring to what we're drinking here at The Hungarian Pastry Shop as "a terrible coffee that pleases only for bearing the name coffee and being hot." 

Sometimes at night I get stressed out about that. I'm afraid I might get called out on that.

Did you give galleys of your book to anyone here?

No, maybe I should have.

There's a real Morningside Heights thing going in the book. Not a neighborhood you see much represented in fiction.

I know, I feel like I'm battling Brooklyn.

Tzvi Gal Chen -- that's your father's name?


And he's dead.

Yes, he died in 1994.

So the information in here as pertains to him is...

It's pretty accurate. He used to come here to the Hungarian a lot, which I didn't know. When I was in medical school I used to study here, and one time I told my mom to meet me here, and she said, "Oh, I know this place. Your father was getting fatter and fatter eating the cakes here every day." So it's almost genetic.

It's a really interesting act, creating your father as a character in fiction. How hard was this for you -- say, composing e-mails from Tsvi Gal-Chen.

I knew that if I tried to create a character that was actually my dad and actually shared his qualities, that it would be idealized or false and weird. But [the method I used in the book] has a lot of appeal to me because I sort of made him into a mock hero rather than a hero. Other characters mistake him for being grossly more important than he could possibly have been. They mistake him for having wisdom, for his work being significant beyond its literal significance -- a pointer in the direction of something else. And that was appealing. It gave me permission to play with those emotions. In my life, he's large because he's my dad, and large because he's gone. And also larger because growing up in Oklahoma, I didn't know anyone else even kind of like him -- I didn't have a context for him. If I had grown up somewhere else with more foreigners, or more this or more that, he wouldn't somehow represent "all of interest in Russian literature." But he was that big in my landscape, so it's fun to actually build him up as a possible hero, though he doesn't quite hold together.

He's also a locus for the emotions that are otherwise foreclosed for the narrator. The narrator projects all the family feeling that is absent in his relationship with his wife onto a photo of Tsvi and his family. And later he has a discussion via e-mail about the afterlife with Tsvi, who he's by then realized is dead. It's hard to imagine getting away with this type of potentially-sentimental discussion in a contemporary novel without some ingenious device of this sort.

I feel that the fictional endeavor can be a kind of useful misdirection. Take emotion that might seem sentimental or useless or weird and project it out into some other arena where it takes on its own shape. While the narrator was sending his attention, involvement and emotions to the wrong person -- not his wife -- the opposite was true for me. My emotional energy was distorted in a way that I enjoyed distorting it, just by paying attention to the book, and then the narrator refocuses my energy where it would actually be, on sentimental family feelings. 

If you Google your father, the single match that comes up is a reference in the bibliography of someone else's book to a paper he coauthored called "Volcanic eruptions and long-term temperature records: an empirical search for cause and effect" -- a paper which appeared in none other than The Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. Which is such a fantastic name -- even the narrator himself comments that he can't hardly believe it's for real.

It is a great name. And my father isn't a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society, he's a fellow of the American Meteorological Society -- but that's not a great name.

The image of weather patterns that is printed in your book, and which purports to be from one of Gal-Chen's papers -- is that really his?

Yes, though it's grossly misused. It's got a Rorschach quality about it that I really liked.

I loved your narrator's quote about it: "That image from the first Gal-Chen paper I'd seen, back in the library: in addition to reminding me of Rema, it also looked to me like a lonely man, in an alien landscape, glancing back over shoulders as if to ask something of someone who he was not sure was there." It's a beautiful line, but it's also very typical of the narrator -- he's always qualifying his statements. 

I do sort of like that his problem is that he can't stop amending the things. That's an eerie thing in Dante -- he'll ask people, "what's up with you," and they're like, "this is my story." The narrator here can't do that.

The following appeared on the Galleycat blog when the sale of your book was first announced Publisher's Marketplace: "This is one super-smart young writer and person, and it's both inevitable and sad that Galchen's book will likely garner the same backlash that greeted Marisha Pessl last summer. Because lord help you if you're young, female and want to write a -- gasp! -- novel of ideas that tries to bridge science and literature."

Well, my mom's very upset that my real age is published everywhere -- she thinks I'm not so young. And I guess I'm not so young. I would be honored if someone disliked me. There was always something mild and bland about me. That would be great. That would be exciting. 

Right, you could have your own tag on Gawker. You picked a medical degree before you ditched that in favor of writing and an MFA and all that, so I'm curious: which did you like better, Columbia's MFA program or medical school?

I remember in the MFA program I felt a little embarrassed. I think I lacked the proper cynicism. You're supposed to be: "Oh, I'm so disappointed, it's not this, it's not that." And I was like, "Wow, this is amazing." 

In a conversation with Nathan Englander that appeared last year on the Bomb website, you said to him: "Often people hypothesize other writers as an author’s main influences, but it’s always struck me that a donut shop or a girl band or a fourth-grade crush might be far more influential; who or what are your real influences? Or what do you wish they were? Or does this whole notion of influence just make you want to vomit?" I liked that; how would you answer it?

I spent a lot of years just copying one person after another. I wouldn't want to humiliate them by saying who they were. I didn't read tons when I was young. My parents were from Israel, we didn't have a lot of English language books. So I reread the same books a lot, and I also watched a painful amount of TV. I'm not answering this very well... someone who's a contemporary writer who I really love -- if I was going to cite one book in the last ten years that's meant the most to me -- it would probably be The Verificationist by Donald Antrim. He's sort of in the Bernhard tradition, but funny in a different way. Part of what I love about his work is that he's so internal, it's almost like a phenomenology: and then I thought this, and then I had that thought, and this thought. It's an interesting subject matter -- it could be not interesting, because who cares? But he's so articulate and so funny. The Verificationist is all inside the narrator's head over a short period of time. It's not the great social novel, it's something else. An internal landscape. He means a lot to me. My agent wouldn't let me, but I wanted to title my novel "Fleas Mutely Festivaling."

Probably just as well you followed his advice. 

The actual three words are a little something my narrator says in a moment when he's describing why he can't fall asleep next to the simulacrum. It's a line in my book that kind of articulates the particular phenomenology of my narrator's mind and, by the by, of the mind of the narrator of The Verificationist.

There’s this idea that recurs throughout Proust, that people from our past are literally not the same people as they were before, not only because they’ve changed, but because our own past selves -- the “I” that had known them -- no longer exists.

I’m not that interested in the medical side of the narrator’s condition -- did he get hit on the head with a board? Is it dementia? I’m more concerned with the emotions behind it. One idea that comes up with theories of multiple universes is that if there are all these other versions of ourselves running around, we should somehow care about them. But if we can’t have any contact with them, what does it matter? In a way, it’s the same with our past and future selves.