BY CHELSEA NEWNAM
Debut novelist Rivka Galchen says that Spotsylvania County may be the “coolest” place-name she has ever come across, even compared to Slaughtersville, Okla. near her hometown.
Though she doesn’t share the reasoning behind this opinion, this, coupled with her hopes of catching some of the upcoming Rappahannock Independent Film Festival, is what draws her to a free reading and signing of her novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances,” at the Wounded Bookshop at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 19.
Galchen’s novel has gained attention from The New Yorker magazine, The New York Times Book Review and many other smaller publications since its release in May.
“Anyone who has suffered the everyday calamity of the lessening of love, the infinitesimal diminutions of regard that drain a relationship of its power, knows what a relief it would be to blame science fiction,” raves the Times. “This cerebral, demanding, original new writer helps make the charges stick.”
A psychiatrist turned novelist, Galchen received her M.D. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and recently achieved her M.F.A. at Columbia University where she was a Robert Bingham Fellow.
“I wouldn’t want to be a half-hearted doctor, or a half-hearted writer,” Galchen said. “So I am really just pursuing the writing now, even as I remain fascinated by medical language.”
In seeking a way to blend both literary and psychiatric passions, Galchen presents “Atmospheric Disturbances” as a novel about a 51-year-old psychiatrist, Leo Liebenstein, who becomes convinced that his wife has been replaced by a duplicate of herself. This propels a search for his original wife.
Along the way he joins with a former patient who believes he can control the weather and a “not-so-alive” meteorologist who could hold the key to Liebenstein’s predicament.
The novel is, oddly-enough, inspired by the movie “Godzilla.”
According to Galchen, the movie is straightforward about the psychic wounds resulting from the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though it never directly mentions them.
The idea of dealing with psychological trauma by avoiding its discussion intrigued Galchen and pushed her to use this roundabout method of conveying meaning in her own work.
“I wanted my narrator to be talking about everything but what he really should be talking about, to try to solve every mystery, except for the most important one, which is just something ordinary, about how to keep his marriage happy,” she said.
“Atmospheric Disturbances” deals heavily with the concept of loss–loss of a loved one through death and, perhaps more importantly, the loss of our former selves.
For Galchen, the novel explores the ways in which we attempt to recover those losses. It also develops her particular interest in the ability of the strange and familiar to transcend, one into the other.
“I think it’s in the uncanny moments that we feel all those lives we aren’t living but might have lived coursing alongside our actual life,” Galchen said. “Sometimes those other lives start to feel more real.”
According to Galchen, her new-found fame is a bit like brushing her teeth in public. “It’s this part of your life that you’re accustomed to having private and then suddenly, it’s not,” she said.
However, she remains overwhelmingly thankful that she is able to call writing her job.