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Rivka Galchen Is Not Your Mommy

The thirtysomething characters in ‘American Innovations,’ her vital, intelligent, new collection of stories, have trouble growing up

Adam Kirsch
May 08, 2014
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos New York Public Library/Flickr and Shutterstock)

Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen’s first book, was one of the most celebrated novelistic debuts of the last several years. The story of a middle-aged psychologist who becomes convinced that his wife has been mysteriously replaced by an exact double—a delusion known to psychiatry as Capgras syndrome—Atmospheric Disturbances conjured the ghosts of Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges, teasing the reader with cerebral conundrums about how we come to know ourselves and the world. When Leo Liebenstein decides that his wife Rema is actually a simulacrum, and then starts to get drawn into a paranoid fantasy about how the weather is controlled by a shadowy conspiracy, how is he to recognize that he is deluded, when the delusion itself sets the conditions of his understanding?

Galchen’s debut was a prime example of what the critic Marco Roth named, in an influential essay for the literary journal n+1, the “neuronovel.” This is a flourishing new kind of story in which characters are motivated not, as in the traditional novel, by psychological drives, but more bluntly and directly by outright neurological damage: Capgras, Tourette, amnesia. The neuronovel, Roth argued, was a tribute to the increasing prestige of brain science as an explanation of human behavior. Where we once might have assigned our actions to the superego or id, today we can go directly to the cortex and the neuron. Yet the seeming precision of neurology turns out to be, novelistically speaking, a blunt instrument. “By turning so aggressively inward, to an almost cellular level, this kind of novel bypasses the self, let alone society or history, to arrive at neurology: privacy without individuality,” Roth wrote. Such novels represent a “cognitive defeat” because they simply present us with exotic syndromes to marvel at, rather than bringing us inside the mind of the character, as the best fiction does.

Now Galchen has returned with her second book—a collection of stories titled American Innovations—and it appears that she has taken up Roth’s challenge, and met it triumphantly. Instead of neurology, the stories in this short, vital, intelligent collection return to psychology—the old-fashioned kind of motives that need no clinical diagnosis to be understood. These 10 stories are not linked—they don’t take up a single plot or fictional world—yet they are united in a profound way by their protagonists, who are recognizably versions of the same person. They are all adult women, roughly in their thirties, sometimes married and with children; but almost always the most important emotional relationships in their lives are with their parents.

Perhaps that is because Galchen’s characters retain the child’s resistance to responsibility, to being tied down. They are inclined to make sudden journeys, or escape into fantasy, and they behave not quite respectably at parties. What they are resisting is maturity, and in particular the gender roles that adulthood seems to impose. “It was like, I had been told, I wasn’t a woman,” says the narrator of the title story, reflecting on her seeming indifference to a recent break-up. The narrator of “The Lost Order” says much the same thing: “Maybe I’m the dreamer in the relationship. Maybe I’m the man,” she muses, half-defiantly.

There is still, in the architecture of these stories, one high-concept element, a gesture toward metafiction of the kind that also haunted Atmospheric Disturbances. As the back cover copy instructs, several of these stories allude to and partly rewrite canonical short stories by writers like Borges and Gogol and Kafka—much as Galchen’s novel was in playful dialogue with Borges and Pynchon. “The Lost Order,” which presents the afternoon reveries of an unemployed woman, plays with the human desire to escape humdrum reality for imaginary adventure, in the spirit of Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Where Mitty daydreams about being a pilot or a surgeon, the narrator of Galchen’s story—unnamed, like all her protagonists—dreams of joining her husband as a crime duo:

Some people save their marriages—not that our marriage needs saving, not that it’s in danger … by having adventures together. We could pull a heist. Me and Boo. Boo and … well, we’d have some Bonnie and Clyde-type name, just between ourselves. We could heist a UPS truck full of iPhones. On a rural delivery route. The guns wouldn’t need to be real, definitely not. We could move to another country. An expensive and cold one where no one comes looking and where people leave their doors unlocked because wealth is distributed so equitably.

As in Thurber, the reveries of Galchen’s character incorporate the actual events of her daily life: the accidental loss of a wedding ring, an encounter with some UPS drivers. In case the allusion wasn’t clear enough, Galchen underlines it: “I was never a Walter Mitty myself,” her narrator insists, quite wrongly. “Though I consistently fell in love with and envied that type. But a Walter Mitty can’t be married to a Walter Mitty. It doesn’t work. There is a maximum allowance of one Walter Mitty per household. That’s just how it goes.”

The allusion is blunt, but the argument that the narrator is having with herself—who gets to be the dreamer, and who is forced to be responsible?—goes to the very heart of Galchen’s concerns in American Innovations. There is a sense in which all of her characters are clinging to the imaginative freedom we ordinarily associate with a creative writer. They are guarding their privacy, even when that entails a humiliating or destructive rejection of the public, workaday world. In this sense, Galchen’s people, like Mitty, are heroic even in their foolishness, since we all secretly wish we had the courage of irresponsibility. The narrator of “The Lost Order” engages in a series of trivial deceptions—when someone calls her with a wrong number, trying to place an order for Chinese food, she takes the order, allowing the caller to think his food is on the way when it isn’t. It’s a whimsical, ever-so-slightly cruel act, yet we sympathize with her when her husband attacks her for general irresponsibility: “He is saying that lots of people lie, but why do I tell lies that don’t even help me? It’s just fucking weird, he is saying.”

It is weird, but it is also the breath of life, which all of Galchen’s characters share. In the title story, “American Innovations,” Galchen offers another broad allusion to a classic tale: in this case, Gogol’s “The Nose,” with a hint of Philip Roth’s “The Breast” thrown in. In this tale, a young graduate student in library sciences wakes up—“I awoke from not particularly uneasy dreams,” Galchen writes, parodying the famous opening line of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”—to find that she has grown an extra breast on her back. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” the woman’s doctor assures her. “Your body speaks a language. It’s like a foreign language we all speak but have forgotten to understand. … There’s no shame in speaking in signs.”

But what is this particular sign trying to say? Something about femininity, or nurturing, or the burden of appearances? With characteristic wit, Galchen preempts any such speculation by placing the wildest theories in mouths of Internet commenters who find the woman’s picture online and, as Internet commenters will, start arguing about it. “I was an ugly who needed to get over herself, or someone bravely making my own choices about my body, or a fourth-wave feminist, or a symptom of fakesterdom, or a rebel against the tyranny of the ‘natural,’ or a person who really, really needed help.” In the context of “American Innovations,” however, the breast comes to seem like the same kind of endowment as the imagination: a source of shame and pride and delight all at once, which the narrator proudly learns to claim as her own. “I did feel very feminine. I went out and bought a mod kind of dress, sort of like a shift,” the story concludes, with an insouciant downbeat.

All these metafictional hints might suggest that American Innovations is as high-concept as Atmospheric Disturbances. Are the stories themselves meant to be taken as specifically American, and female, innovations on male European classics? In practice, however, it’s not necessary to grasp all of Galchen’s allusions—and I’m not sure I have—to appreciate her voice and themes, which are where the real power of the book resides. Galchen has mastered a tone of deadpan eccentricity, in which characters can reveal the deepest truths about themselves in language that sounds like chatter:

Every Tuesday night I go and see whatever is playing at the movie theater nearby. I’m not choosy. I’m happy to see what everyone else is going to see. That way I stay in touch without having to talk to people, which is great, because even though I very much like people in general, I find most people, in specific, kind of difficult. I prefer the taciturn company of my things. I love my things. I have a great capacity for love, I think.

That self-undercutting “I think” is typical of the way the characters in American Innovations fail to know themselves, or fail to admit what they do know about themselves. Galchen is a master of subtext, of the way our words and actions reveal things that we never intended. “Sticker Shock” uses a dispute between “the mother” and “the daughter” over a real-estate investment to conjure the whole history of a relationship, in which money matters are merely metaphors. “So then you’re not even talking about what you’re talking about, the daughter went on, not really sure what she herself was talking about,” Galchen writes, in what could be a capsule description of her method in these stories. “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” does something similar with a stepmother-stepdaughter relationship, whose tonal complexities emerge during a Key West writer’s conference.

A few of the stories in American Innovations have more ambitious and intricate plots or premises, sometimes verging on genre-fiction territory. “The Region of Unlikeness” introduces us to a lonely woman who befriends two men, only to discover that one of them may or may not be her adult son, time-traveling back from the future. “Once an Empire” is a surreal parable in which a woman’s possessions literally get up and walk out of her apartment, making her feeling of bewilderment and loss comically concrete. But the tales in American Innovations do not need this kind of magical assistance. Indeed, what may the best story of all—“Wild Berry Blue,” an almost painfully clear and precise description of the way a child falls in love—is straightforwardly declarative in a way that is rare for Galchen. Emotional reality turns out to be odder and more mysterious than the mysteries we make up.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.