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Review: 'Atmospheric Disturbances' is witty nerd lit

Unearthing a clever novel amidst the usual summer sandstorm of chick lit, mad memoirs, bloated bildungsromans and dingbat thrillers is positively encouraging. There are authors still prepared to jump into the opaque water of ontology, diving down even deeper than the writers of Lost.

Lost is actually quite relevant to Rivka Galchen's brain-bending debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances. Both explore how we find science at once revelatory and threatening. Both wonder if it's fate, providence or more sinister forces that control our lives. In this world, paranoia is a rational response. The conspiracy is real.

Or so psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein concludes. He's not feeling so good: maybe nursing a migraine, maybe just sulking. Moreover, his wife has gone missing, replaced by an imposter. Sure, this woman looks just like Rema: same blond hair, same walk, same Argentinian-inflected English. Yet Leo is positive the woman in bed next to him is a "simulacrum." It's clearly a nefarious plot.

Determined to find his wife, Leo suspects her disappearance is linked to the disappearance of one of his patients, an absinthe-drinking, weather-obsessed schizophrenic from the Upper East Side with a habit of endangering life and limb in search of unseasonal tornadoes and freak hailstorms. Harvey claims to get encrypted messages from Page Six of the New York Post, "coded in a Hasselhoff binge or a Gisele Bundchen real estate acquisition."

Harvey tells Leo his instructions come from the Royal Academy of Meteorology, a band of brave climate scientists battling the sinister 49 Quantum Fathers. The 49 are a Weather Underground who not only know which way the wind blows but can make it blow any direction they want. They fool around in alternative universes and finance their wicked schemes "through investments in crop futures, crops whose futures, naturally, depended upon the 49's machinations of the weather."

Rema (that's the real one, not the fake) had come up with this bright idea for Harvey's treatment: She would call Leo in the middle of a session, pretending to be Dr. Tzvi Gal-Chen of the Royal Academy of Meteorology, with orders that Harvey should stick close to Manhattan for his weather work. Only now Harvey's gone, Rema's gone — and Leo must find them both or surrender to chaos.

Suspicious yet? Perhaps you recall that "Harvey" is the name of the 6-foot rabbit invisible to everyone except the drunk in the charming James Stewart movie by that title. Perhaps you noticed that the author's name is the same — minus the hyphen — as the Royal Academy meteorologist's.

Or you might recall Edgar Allan Poe's great tale of the doppelganger, William Wilson, in which the narrator is haunted by his double — unless it's the other way around. Or maybe the number of "Quantum Fathers" reminds you of Thomas Pynchon's 1965 Crying of Lot 49, a novel about a secret movement called the Trystero, which might (or might not) control the U.S. postal system.

Galchen, a Mount Sinai-trained M.D. (and daughter of the late Tzvi Gal-Chen, a well-known scientist), has a high old time, throwing an Oliver Sacks-style medical conundrum into a David Foster-Wallace cosmology with a sideline in Tristram Shandy-ish humor.

Atmospheric Disturbances is also kissing cousin to Marisha Pessl's 2006 hit Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Both are quests to reveal an unfathomable mystery, maybe even a global (in Galchen's case, multiple-world) conspiracy. Both are chock full of erudite references, scholarly asides and flat-out weird science: nerd lit for the new century.

Galchen starts off confident and darkly funny, yanking the cheap rug of reality out from under the reader's feet. Unfortunately, she can't sustain her craftiness. Once Leo heads off to Argentina to look for Rema (maybe she has gone home?), the novel gets tangled in its own metaphysics.

Galchen seems to be aiming for Borges but hitting Star Trek remember all those episodes when the crew find themselves confronting a parallel universe? Her glittering playfulness is dulled, the urgency of the mystery bogs down, Leo begins to bore faster than a bad Woody Allen imitator.

Most unhappily, Rema ceases to be the uncanny double from Looking Glass-land and starts acting like a woman who realizes she's married to a nutcase, alternately annoyed and weepy. In the end, there's no payoff, no revelation, no "stelliferous Meaning" even hinted at. We get a whimper, not a bang.

Perhaps, in a novel that elegantly explains the Doppler effect and unmasks its relationship to the radar the TV weather segment is always invoking, a slow sigh trailing off into the distance is as good as it gets.

In Pynchon's Lot 49, heroine Oedipa Maas may be paranoid but cherishes her fantasy, her hope of miracles, "the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night." In Atmospheric Disturbances, the butterfly may have flapped her wings, setting off the tsunami, but the reader is left only with Leo's neuroses.

Diane Roberts, professor of creative writing at FSU, is the author of "Dream State."


Disturbances: A Novel

By Rivka Galchen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $23

Review: 'Atmospheric Disturbances' is witty nerd lit 07/26/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 4:38pm]
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