In Conversation

Rivka Galchen with David Varno

Photo of Rivka Galchen by Ken Goebel.

Rivka Galchen uses science in order to pursue the mysteries of love, mortality and spirituality found in literature. It’s an exciting project. In March of this year, the New Yorker published her short story, “The Region of Unlikeliness,” which takes its name from the writings of St. Augustine, draws on time travel theorems and tells of a young engineering student’s rapture with a pair of aging uptown coffee-shop-patronizing, Deleuze-quoting pseudo-philosphers. The story has been well-noted as a departure from the New Yorker’s usual stuffiness, and serves as a perfect introduction to Galchen’s debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). The book follows a middle-aged psychiatrist named Dr. Leo Leibenstein, who after becoming suddenly convinced that his wife is an imposter succumbs to the psychosis of one of his patients. But the book is about way more than a shrink who goes nuts. It’s about the elusiveness of love, and with Deleuze’s Proust and Signs as a guide, Galchen perfectly explicates the tragedy of time and the tendency to fall in love with those who are not from our world. The book is also about meteorology, a field in which the author’s late father, Tzvi Galchen, was eminent.

David Varno (The Brooklyn Rail): You began school at Princeton as an English student before heading straight to Mount Sinai, where you secured a medical degree in psychiatry, and then came to Columbia for your M.F.A. Have you had a duel interest in science and literature from the beginning?

Rivka Galchen: I was more interested in science at first because most of the books in my house growing up were in Hebrew, and most of the books my mom read were guidebooks on how to file your taxes, or stuff like that, so it wasn’t a bookish house. My creative life was always in science. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I thought, wow, literature is kind of exciting.

Rail: Where did you grow up after emigrating from Israel?

Galchen: Norman, Oklahoma. My dad was a professor of meteorology there, and my mom worked for the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Norman and Boulder are major storm centers so we lived back and forth between those two places. Did you ever see Twister? That’s my hometown. My mom was a computer programmer, so when there would be a severe storm we would drive out to the radar and she was the one who would send the data over to Channel 9 or whatever.

Rail: Aside from the papers you’ve published in journals, how have you made use of the medical degree?

Galchen: I haven’t practiced. Since college, I really wanted to be a writer. But in my family that was a kind of ugly ambition. “It’s very unstable, it doesn’t make money.” There was a sort of immigrant parent thing, and I’m very unadventurous, very unrebellious; I just want to make my mom happy. Psychiatry is a great field…but I really just wanted to write. It was a very expensive long-term insurance policy…maybe it was a mistake but it doesn’t feel like a mistake. I was thinking of doing psychoanalytic training, which I thought might be fun. But working in a hospital is not really for me.

Rail: So you disagree with Dr. Leo’s ideas about the field, his dismissal of psychoanalysis, etc.

Galchen: I disagree with him so perfectly that it’s almost like agreeing with him. It was really fun to write someone who I found so unnerving, and would say things that would really infuriate me. Sometimes he’ll say something that’s just so counter to his own actions that I don’t even need to disagree with him because he’s so prone to contradict himself; I don’t need to do it for him.

Rail: Like the way he can’t decide between Freud and Jung, but seems more obsessed with the former’s ideas.

Galchen: Right. But somehow so hostile to him at the same time.

Rail: As an unreliable narrator, Leo is exposed by the things he doesn’t say, what he refuses to explore. He barely mentions his late mother and father, but is clearly affected by them. Does this relate to your father’s appearances in the book?

Galchen: I feel like I’d betray Leo. He’s pretty devoted to not elaborating. I don’t want to speak for him, but I can speak for myself in the sense that, even though I’m not at the center of the book at all, it’s interesting to me that others reading it hardly even notice my father’s name in it. I think that’s just right, even though it was the whole fuel for writing the book. To me it felt enormous, and huge—it’s like the whole movie for me.

Rail: Your father is represented by his research papers and family photographs, but the voice invented for him by the narrator’s wife, Rema, in order that she may communicate with him, is fictionalized. Is there anything of your father here?

Galchen: I just sort of used my dad’s research and his name. He’s been gone for so long, so it’s nice in that way. I don’t think his actual personality comes into the book, but some sort of fantasy that it could was there for me.

Rail: You borrow from his studies for one of the book’s most interesting confluences of science and emotion. Weather cannot be predicted, because the present state of weather cannot be determined itself. Therefore, as Leo decides, love that was found under false pretenses must be lost.

Galchen: Sometimes you realize that a thing you knew so well had contained weird, other alien worlds. For me this is always best evidenced in my mom, who obviously I’ve known pretty well, but I’ll realize every so often that I didn’t know her so well. Perhaps that’s the experience in any love relationship, where you don’t even know the situation currently, and it’s necessary to be startled out of your misconceptions. You’re always going to be slightly less wrong or wrong in a new way.

Rail: In following Leo’s detective work early in the novel, I was reminded of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, with regard to the methodical but blind nature of the search.

Galchen: I love Paul Auster. I didn’t have him in mind, but you know that it’s whoever you don’t have on your mind who’s on your mind—it’s always some secret thing. But I was thinking of Gombrowicz, and Cosmos, which is sort of like Auster in that it’s a mystery in which the person who’s solving the mystery is actually writing, so they find clues that others would consider random, and let these things guide them, and they become less random because they’ve been sanctified as clues. As a methodology it gets a little Jungian.

Rail: Do you expect to continue to draw from psychiatry in your fiction?

Galchen: I hope so; it’s a really interesting vocabulary. I like the way it has so much explanatory value and then it just sort of hits a wall. Like, why is this person mad, angry, violent—you have all this language of neuro-imaging, neuro-chemistry, and then you hit a wall and it’s useless. But it’s a nice language to muck around in.

Rail: Through the voice of your father, Rema lectures Leo about Dante’s Dead, about how they know of the past but not the present. He rationalizes, asking the reader, “When is talking about literature not an evasion of the real question at hand?” It’s a perfect example of his complete oblivion. Do you see Leo as one of Dante’s Dead?

Galchen: That’s interesting. It’s true; just like the dead in Dante, he’s totally estranged from his actual life and his marriage. But there’s one thing that signifies why he’s still stuck alive instead of dead: What’s nice about the dead in Dante is that if you ask them something about themselves they just sort of tell you and then it’s over, whereas in someone’s imagination, maybe Dante’s, what it means to be alive is to keep going on, to explain your position. You just keep having more to say and never get anywhere; you can’t succinctly describe who you are or what you want.

Rail: Like in psychiatry—but Leo never hits the wall, because of his own psychosis.

Galchen: Yeah yeah yeah. He can endlessly generate. It’s funny, I saw Endgame at BAM the other night. I love that play. They were really good with the vaudeville stuff, which impressed me because actors don’t have to do that anymore. But I was most impressed by the fact that they never stop talking. They don’t really get anywhere, but they just keep going.

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David Varno