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Charmed by Rivka Galchen

May 20, 2009

Several things drew me to the Rivka Galchen event last night, hosted by Nextbook at the Washington DCJCC — not the least of which was winning a free ticket in a trivia contest. (Answer: Where The Wild Things Are; and thank you to Margalit Rosenthal for hosting the contest.) But I’d also remembered that Ron Charles’ review of Galchen’s debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, and I’d been mightily intrigued by the premise, and while I hadn’t yet had time to read the book itself, the event promised the opportunity for a preview. And with Charles himself hosting a post-reading chat with the author… well, it was a perfect confluence of circumstances to convince me this was a must-see event.

And I was far from disappointed. 

While the reading itself from the book’s opening was a tad overlong, it was nonetheless a marvelous sample, introducing us to the novel’s 51-year-old psychiatrist protagonist and to his heart-wrenching dilemma: He believes that his wife has been replaced by a simulacrum, and he begins a quest to find the woman he’s lost. 

Galchen has an odd presence behind the podium, a high-pitched, even squeaky voice combined with striking good looks (Charles quoted Papermag’s Beautiful People 2009 feature, which called her “the pinup for every Pynchon fan who… went to engineering school”) and a surprising shyness, explained by an admission later in the evening that it was awkward, awkward, awkward to get up in front of people and read — and really that she had trouble imagining people reading her work at all when she was in the process of writing it.   

Still, she proved both engaging and illuminating, speaking with equal authority on both the medical aspects of the book and the artistic choices, both explaining (for example) some of other incidents of the real medical condition that her protagonist may be going through — Capgras  Syndrome, also labeled “delusional misidentity syndrome” — and explaining why she resisted ever using the phrase in the book. Diagnosing him, it seemed, would explain him away somehow, when really what she was trying to tap into what many of us experience, the moments when “people exceed what you know about them,” whether it’s a suddenly surprising and alienating perspective on a parent or a spouse or, as she explained, that moment when you go to the pool and “see your history teacher in swimming trunks.”

Add this one to my summer reading list — a more and more ambitious pile of books each day, but this one seems to demand attention.

Postscript: Here’s Ron Charles’ own take on the night, from today’s “Short Stack.”

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