This post may contain spoilers; most of the data it will disclose are easily predictable within the first quarter of the book, and as such I consider them fair game. If you genuinely do not want to know the book’s plot, please do not read this review.
I don’t remember exactly how I came across Atmospheric Disturbances; it was likely an Amazon recommendation, and I can’t say for sure what inspired me to pick it up other than I found it at the library and it’s premise—namely that a man suddenly decides that his wife has been replaced by an identical imposter—piqued that curiosity which is aroused by such things1
This is Galchen’s first novel, and it has been compared by critics to Thomas Pynchon as well as Haruki Murakami and even Paul Auster. I can say with some certainty that’s it’s not really reminiscent of Pynchon unless you’re being extraordinarily generous; I haven’t read any Murakami2 and can’t compare on that front; the Auster comparison makes more sense to me, though I think it’s only applicable in terms of environment, and not particularly of writing style.
The 50-year-old psychologist narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances, Dr. Leo Liebenstein realizes one day that his much younger wife, Rema, is no longer around; in her place is a woman identical to Rema, who insists that she is Rema, and who our narrator convinces himself is not because of small discrepancies between this woman and the Rema in his mind. This is a type of mental disorder known as a Capgras delusion, part of a family of delusion misidentification syndromes. There is, of course, the brash irony of a psychologist being unaware of such textbook symptoms, but that is the nature of an illness, I suppose. In any case, he forms elaborate conspiracy theories, the fanciful flight of which comprise most of the book.
Here’s where I will spoil the ending for you. Maybe. The narrator really does suffer from Capgras delusion; there is no hidden revelation; there’s no truth to any of his invented conspiracies or weather-controlling organizations. He spends several days in such a delusion, and eventually goes home with Rema, confessing to his readers that he will maintain delusion for the rest of his life.
In other words, there’s no ending to spoil, because Atmospheric Disturbances has no discernible plot; more accurately, the plot it does have has no discernible vector. The narrator goes to Argentina, and Patagonia, and back to the States, but each time does so largely to sit in his room and ruminate on the manifold reasons why this “impostress” can’t possibly be Rema. His thoughts, however unfounded and obviously wrong to readers, are nonetheless of a very psychological bent: this has the twofold effect of being very pedantic but giving the narration a degree of verisimilitude. In other words, we may appreciate the straightforward and proper mechanics3 but despise the effect all the while.
If there is no plot or vector to speak of, the point of the novel must therefore be its character development. It is true that readers come to understand, slice by slice, the dynamic of Leo and Rema’s relationship. Leo has, it would appear, crippling insecurity issues due to Rema’s beauty and her relative youth. Mostly, they’re a weird sort of couple, prone to fits of melancholy and caprice; while it’s clear that they do genuinely seem to care for each other, there’s nothing about them that makes the reader empathize with their plight or particularly care what happens to them. How appropriate, then, that nothing of interest does happen to them.
The initial mystery and elaborate structure of the novel were such promising starts, but it ultimately was little more than a curio, a writing exercise that went on for too long. It utterly lacks the sort of dynamism that I look for in books, and I can’t with good conscience recommend it to anybody.