An Exact Duplicate of "Atmospheric Disturbances"
Tuesday night a group of readers, "fit but few," gathered at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C. to meet Rivka Galchen, the author of last year's twilight-zone debut Atmospheric Disturbances. It's about a psychiatrist who suddenly becomes convinced that his wife has been replaced by an exact duplicate.
Looking impossibly young, Galchen laughed about earning a BA at Princeton, an MD at Mount Sinai, and then an MFA at Columbia, where she now teaches writing. "I love school, but the medical degree was basically a very long, very expensive mistake."
But she acknowledged that her study of medicine had given her a facility with the language of science that pervades her novel's cerebral comedy. A psychiatrist in the audience (there were several there last night) came bearing a copy of the journal Psychiatry which contained an article about Capgras Syndrome -- the condition that seems to afflict Galchen's hero, Dr. Leo Liebenstein. But Galchen explained she didn't label Leo's condition in the novel because it would be a "totalizing explanation." She wanted his existential struggle to retain a variety of meanings and implications.
To her, this quirky story isn't just about a man with a mental problem, it's a love story, a tale about the way the people closest to us change in startling ways. "We have to choose to fall in love again," she said.
The audience clearly did. Another psychiatrist enumerated all the uncanny similarities between herself and the author. "Wait, could we be related?" Galchen asked.
The discussion eventually turned to Argentina, where Dr. Liebenstein continues the search for his wife. A woman in the audience claimed that Buenos Aires has more psychiatrists than taxicab drivers. Another psychiatrist agreed: "That's why I speak Hebrew with an Argentine accent."
(The final event in the Nextbook Author series this year will be Lucette Lagnado talking about her memoir "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit" on June 17.)
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