Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"I left a note for the sleeping woman, though I wasn't quite sure to whom I was really addressing it."

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The opening sentence of Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (2008) is extremely promising:
Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.
Whether the woman really is an imposter or the narrator is suffering from the terrifying Capgras delusion, who cares at this point? Something is dreadfully yet intriguingly wrong, a great position from which to start a novel.

But it quickly gets better: Galchen peppers the first few pages--all I've read so far of the novel--with several moments of tiny slippage and oddity, designed to signal that there's something going on here. The atmosphere of overall strangeness begins with the simple fact that the narrator's pseudo-wife barely reacts when he directly tells her that he doesn't think she's really his wife; it thickens with the sort of distracting attention to perfectly described details that is common to Nabokov's unreliable narrators--the woman "imitated Rema's Argentine accent perfectly, the halos around the vowels," "the ascending pitches of our teakettle's tremble are so familiar to me"; and it quickly moves into the truly bizarre, like this moment when the narrator, surreptitiously rifling the woman's purse,
noticed what I was doing--unfolding credit card receipts, breathing in the scent of her change purse, licking the powder off a half stick of cinnamon gum.
Though there's always the risk that this sort of accumulation of mysterious, half-freaky details will ultimately add up to little, I will admit to being a sucker for a story that begins with such clear, yet unexpected warnings that all is not as it seems; it's one of the great pleasures offered by some of my favorite authors, including Kazuo Ishiguro and Philip K. Dick.

Yup, Ms. Galchen has hit upon a good way to keep me reading. Back out to the porch with this book!

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