VINE VOICEon 5 August 2008
The plot, such as it is, has already been described in detail, so here's the quick version: a middle-aged psychiatrist believes his wife has been replaced. The perfect set-up for a paranoia thriller, perhaps? Well, yes, but this is not the author's intent.
The intent is to accurately describe, from the narrator's point of view, a slide into psychosis. The author succeeds in this, and for that has my respect, Unfortunately, this leaves us with a novel of minimal plot.
The first half of the book attempts to preserve the mystery and keep the narrator's theory believable. Here, the author has my sympathy, as the last paragraph of the description on the book jacket reveals the truth about the protagonist's situation. The second half finally sees some narrative movement, but by this point, the novel has become rather tedious. Thanks to the publisher, what should be a slow, mysterious build-up in which the reader makes their own judgement becomes rather dull -- like watching the first half of The Matrix while Keanu Reeves tries to figure out the blatantly obvious.
Rivka Galchen must be an expert on the condition the narrator suffers from, and paints an extremely convincing first-hand picture of the neuroses and delusions of the protagonist, although one would expect most men in his situation to simply experience a mid-life crisis, and buy a sports car and attempt to woo 20-something girls. We receive no sense of reality, or even location, as we read. Descriptions of places and situations are irritatingly thin, and the story essentially boils every scenario down to (a) how the allegedly replaced wife would have reacted in such a situation, (b) a situation the narrator is reminded of from his past, and (c) thoughts and justifications to tie events into his delusions of conspiracy.
This story has endless possibilities, and handled by, say, Haruki Murakami, could have bewitched, charmed, excited, provoked and bemused the reader. As written by Galchen, this is merely two steps away from a research paper. The writing is not complex or difficult to follow, nor are the ideas presented likely to go over the heads of the average readers. The style is meticulous, yet dull, just like the the main character.
Ultimately, as this book reaches it's conclusion, and the reader finds they have travelled full circle, Atmospheric Disturbances can be dismissed as and unsatisfying read, little more than an intellectual exercise on the part of the author, and most definitely a poor excuse for a novel, despite the positives already mentioned.