Searching seemed to be the theme at last year’s Governor General Awards, Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, with works of mystery, self-discovery, and loss finding their place among 2008’s finalists. One of these selected works is Toronto-based author Rivka Galchen’s first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances. Though still relatively unknown, the novel has been steadily garnering praise across the country: the Canada Council for the Arts called it “a poignant and very funny journey inside a mistaken mind,” “wonderfully sly [with a] magnificently skewed sense of humour.”
This unusual postmodernist book follows the story of Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist who believes that the woman he is living with is not his wife, Rema, but a perfect double unaware of her replacement. In his search for answers, he teams up with his patient, Harvey, who has convinced himself that he has the ability to control the weather, and is working as a secret agent for the Royal Academy of Meteorology. Together they attempt to locate the missing Rema and stop the Royal Academy’s nemeses, a group of deviant meteorologists by the name of the 49 Quantum Fathers, from disturbing regular weather patterns.
Although unconventional in its approach to the topics of sanity, reality, and perception, Atmospheric Disturbances is a beautifully written tale of a man willing to take his convictions as far as necessary in order to find comfort and the one he loves. The book’s style is perhaps better suited to a short story as the diagrams, photos, and scientific definitions included tend to detract from Galchen’s effortless prose.
However, overall the novel does get its message across, showing us exactly how difficult love is to maintain. Leo’s unwillingness to love this new Rema exaggeratedly depicts how couples often grow apart. He often states that the doppelganger is “not the woman I married,” mirroring the usual sentiment expressed when one’s partner seems to change.
The first-person narration of Atmospheric Disturbances further blurs the line between Leo’s adventures and reality, as he often juxtaposes intelligent scientific observations against anecdotes on chimp-human hybrids, waitresses’ waists, and canine emotions.
Although endearing, Leo’s consistent denial of his own insanity and pseudo-logical search for his missing wife do become tiresome. However, just when it seems like the character has alienated himself from the reader with his ongoing and upbeat commentary, Galchen ends with a chapter heartbreaking in its calm resignation.
With its charming style and beautifully tragic theme, Atmospheric Disturbances is well worth the read and certainly worthy of the recognition it has been given.