Novelist Rivka Galchen's Book is All About Doubles

Psychiatrist Rivka Galchen's debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, is about a man who thinks his wife has been replaced by a fake.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Imagine that your significant other has been replaced by a fake, a clone, a doppelganger, and you don't know why. You don't call her out on it. You just kind of play along, all the while trying to desperately to crack what you believe is a global conspiracy responsible for her disappearance. Questions begin to mount. Who is the double? Why is she here? Why does she have a dog? Who's good? Who's bad? And who's crazy?

The questions lead the protagonist on a search for truth, or his version of the truth. From New York, to Buenos Aires, to Patagonia, this is the premise of Rivka Galchen's debut novel, "Atmospheric Disturbances." Galchen's book has been hailed as a twisting, erudite mystery, driven by scientific and psychological intrigue. Rivka Galchen joins me now in the studio. Thanks for coming in this morning.

Ms. RIVKA GALCHEN (Author, "Atmospheric Disturbances"): Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Something is wrong. This man's wife has gone missing. Her name is Rema. Explain to us a little more about who this character is. Leo Liebenstein, is his name and what is his plight?

Ms. GALCHEN: You know, this woman comes home who isn't his wife, who - he just has the conviction. He can't quite articulate it, but he knows - I don't know, this isn't her. And he has to come up - he begins searching for his wife, who, despite this other woman in the home - you know, his wife is gone, and in the process of searching, he forms some strange alliances. He ends up forming an alliance with one of his patients who's quite delusional, and he sort of starts thinking that maybe this patient isn't so delusional. So he starts sort of casting about for a possible explanation and route towards his missing wife.

MARTIN: He - in essence, he becomes part of - he buys into this false reality that he's trying to deconstruct for his patient.

Ms. GALCHEN: Yes, exactly, like, in the process of sort of stepping into that reality, where he sort of thinks he's got one foot in the kind of consensus idea of what's going on, and one foot in this patient's reality to help manage him, he starts thinking, well, this foot that I thought was grounded in the more likely reality has its own strange things going on, and then maybe, like, when I'm in this other space, which is sort of - was introduced to me by my patient, like, there are explanations for what's going on that make a lot more sense, or that at the very least are less painful than explanations presented to me than this reality I started out in.

MARTIN: Now this book is highly personal for you in a lot of ways. Tzvi Galchen, that name that you gave to a very prominent character in the story, is the name of your late father.

Ms. GALCHEN: Right, exactly. You know, here, obviously, for everyone you know, you know, if you lose your father, you know, it's extremely painful, but it's not something that I would want to talk about directly, because that seems - it both seems personal, and like you can never represent it well, and it just seems odd.

So, instead of sort of, like, talking about what that particular sad feeling might be like, or what my real dad might be like, instead I sort of, like, transformed that energy and interest in a person into the creation of this, this other world inside the book, where they make kind of a - kind of like a mock hero out of him, and it's just sort of like a pleasure. It's just the kind of thing that gets you up every day to work on it, because it amuses you.

MARTIN: The story is so much about meshing realties or versions of truth. It's also about a marriage or communion between science - or hard sciences and the softer social sciences. These are things that are so clearly embodied in you and your personal history, right? So talk a little bit about how you approached this. You, yourself, we should point out, are a doctor.

Ms. GALCHEN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah, I am a doctor.

Ms. GALCHEN: I am a doctor. That's what my mom tells all her friends. And it's true. For whatever reason, most of the first things, it seems beautiful to me, or that I projected emotional value onto where scientific things, like, even when I was little, like, the proof that the square root of two was irrational was to me, like, something so sort of succinct and elegant that it's easy to put emotional value on that that may or may not belong.

Like, emotional value, like, oh, this seems to suggest the world has an order. This seems to suggest the world has an interesting and beautiful story to tell, if that may or may not be true, but those are the first places my emotions went, rather than to stories or books. And in order to, like, successfully project your emotion onto it and get a sense of authority, like, I like that scientific language lets us do that. Like, it makes us feel like the emotion we have associated with it is more authentic than, you know, watching a Kleenex commercial. But in fact, you're still so much in control of what that emotion is going to be.

MARTIN: There's a lot of science in the book. The main character is a psychologist, and he's dealing with this supposed consortium of meteorologists. Is the science real, or is this part of the fiction?

Ms. GALCHEN: Right, well, the actual scientific quotations almost all come from my father's actual papers, and almost all of the sort of scientific facts in there happen to be real facts. And although the character, Leo, has a way of kind of grossly misappropriating any factual information to his own emotional ends, they still are true things out there in the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Which is such a human thing, really.

Ms. GALCHEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And talk about the doppelganger effect.

Ms. GALCHEN: Leo ends up coining this term, stealing it from the Doppler effect, which is sort of the effect that makes things appear to go - say, a sound, like when a car passes us, the sound will appear to change in pitch, up and down, as it gets closer and further, because the, you know, waves are coming to us faster, because it's moving relative to us.

MARTIN: Mm-hm.

Ms. GALCHEN: But then, of course, emotionally, this is relevant to the marital situation because, you know, love and our relationship is inevitably dynamic, and both people are changing and moving, and it doesn't get him very far, but it's sort of a beautiful thing that he designs in order not to move forward. And I find that interesting, the way that sometimes, in the process of not looking, we have to construct something pretty elaborate in order to obscure our vision, and that thing that is constructive can take on its own beauty, I think.

MARTIN: Mm-hm. Why did you choose to write this in the voice of an older man? I mean, you're a doctor. You're a psychiatrist. You have that background that clearly informed how you involved this character. But you could have made a choice about gender or age. Why did that fit for you?

Ms. GALCHEN: Right. Well, you know, I think I've always been incredibly jealous of boys or men for this one particular thing, which is that I don't know if it's just the particular men that I've known in my life, but they sort of, you know, go around, saying what they say, thinking what they think. Whether it's politics, whether it's sports, whether it's movies, they say it with so much authority.

So, I find that stance both incredibly appealing and yet utterly absurd, because there is obviously on some level, I sort of think, well, how can you go around being confident like that? Shouldn't you entertain more doubt? And so I think in some weird way, I just sort of thought, like well, I want to occupy that voice of confidence and authority, while at the same time I want to be sympathetic to it, because I think, you know, there is a emotional reason to strut around so confidently. And like, there must be a reason to construct that kind of facade around your thoughts, and I want to be sympathetic to that also. So it was just fun.

MARTIN: So much of about this book is Leo's failure to see his wife, even though she's all the while desperately trying to make him believe that she is indeed the woman that he fell in love with. Has this changed how you look at your own marriage? You're - you've been married for while now.

Ms. GALCHEN: For seven years.

MARTIN: And you might - someone might read this book and say, oh, whoever wrote this is kind of cynic about whether or not marriage can actually sustain.

Ms. GALCHEN: I know. How terrifying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GALCHEN: Oh. But I mean, I guess, I sort of think marriages can't sustain if someone sort of is rigid and, like, endlessly devoted to a person who doesn't exist anymore, which is so and so seven years ago. Like, that person is just as gone as someone who has died. And I think that - I don't know, it's unclear whether Leo himself gets there.

He sort of speculates towards that space of reimagining what it would be like not to be with the woman he married, but to be with the woman in his house now. And that's always the question, like, can this - you know, can people fall in love again and again? Because that seems to me, although I'm not like the oldest person in the world, I'm not that young either. It seems to me those are the only...

MARTIN: You're pretty young.

Ms. GALCHEN: Though it seems to me those are the only relationships that work, when for some reason, you can find new reasons to be in love.

MARTIN: The book is called "Atmospheric Disturbances." The author is Rivka Galchen. We thank you for coming into the studio. Good luck with everything.

Ms. GALCHEN: Thank you, so much.

(Soundbite of music)

MIKE PESCA, host:

Coming up, in anticipation of the Paralympic Games, China wrote some tips on working with disabled people. It didn't go over so well. We will find out why on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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