Monday, August 18, 2008


I've been reading Atmospheric Disturbances, a debut novel about, apparently, Capgras Syndrome, by one Rivka Galchen, a youngish woman described on the jacket flap as having both M.D. and M.F.A. (whether psychiatry-trained or not I don't know). Featured in a moderately enthusiastic New York Times review, the book is a first-person narration by a late-middle age (or so I gather) New York City psychiatrist, Leo Liebenstein, who suddenly believes one day that his younger Argentinian wife, Rema, has been replaced by an impostor.

Inasmuch as the book involves Argentina and includes a number of philosophical themes related to identity and perception, it has raised inevitable comparisons to Borges (indeed, Peter Kramer, in an ambivalent review in his blog, suggested that the novel may have worked better as a short story). In the NYT review the book was described as "brainy," and to me that is the basis of both its occasional virtues and its deeper flaws. The prose seems too brainy, and is chock full of clever and overly literary turns of phrase as well as obscure allusions. And since this is a first person narration, it is not really believable; no one talks or thinks like this. Liebenstein never really seems real or worth caring about; he seems, well, rather like a young woman thinking and writing really hard for an MFA seminar.

The story does contain a number of ingenious variations on the theme of the double (and it's making me want to go back and reread Dostoevsky's The Double as well as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Naturally, the dynamic between Leo and Rema raises likenesses of Capgras Syndrome to the more mundane process of falling out of "love" (or at least the erotic phase thereof) with someone; suddenly a prospective or actual partner, while technically the same (a simulacrum, the term frequently used in Atmospheric Disturbances), seems totally different. One of the epigraphs of the novel, by Gilles Deleuze, ends with "The beloved expresses a possible world unknown to us...that must be deciphered." Does erotic love end, and mutate into something less titillating, when the beloved is in fact more or less deciphered? And reading the book reminds one that our own identity, that we like to think of as more or less stable, is in fact made up of myriad overlapping doubles; this morning I am a Doppelganger of sorts of myself as I was yesterday (almost precisely the same, but not quite).

As a psychiatrist narrator Liebenstein never really comes alive, as I said, and in fact he is positively annoying: friendless, self-involved, straining to be clever. Most dissappointingly given the fictional scenario, he himself doesn't make the basic observation that he is struggling with a Capgras Syndrome. Could a psychiatrist lack insight this completely?

This happens to be the second "Capgras novel" in the last couple of years. Richard Powers's The Echomaker featured a man who suffered a head injury in an accident and developed the Capgras delusion about his sister; overall that was a much more impressive and believable account. Galchen certainly shows potential, and Atmospheric Disturbances is intriguing as an effort at psychological and philosophical fiction, but the result is mixed.

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