In Rivka Galchen's short story collection "American Innovations," life is both simpler and more complicated than it seems.The main characters, most of them young professional women, generally live in a recognizable contemporary world that seems to have been turned upside down, or at least noticeably sideways. One protagonist's furniture leaves her; another grows a third breast; still another becomes involved with a pair of academics who may or may not be involved in time travel. And yet the greatest disturbances of all are their relationships — with their partners, their children, their parents — that are constantly fraying from all the usual frictions and dangers.
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"American Innovations" is the author's follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut novel, "Atmospheric Disturbances" (2008), which earned her a place on the "20 under 40" list of promising young writers from The New Yorker magazine, where many of these stories were first published. The daughter of Israeli immigrants who moved to Canada and then to Norman, Okla., where she grew up, Galchen studied English at Princeton University, but then entered medical school and trained as a psychiatrist before returning to writing.
Printers Row Journal recently caught up with the author, 38, for a phone interview from her home in New York City; here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: A lot of your stories feature characters who are living in a constant state of disorientation — they're never really sure what's going on, what's real and what isn't. I wonder whether your growing up in Oklahoma with Israeli parents might have something to do with that.
A: Growing up in Oklahoma, my parents were sort of an island culture all their own, and then around me was a totally different culture. And the juxtaposition of the two made neither seem totally stable and correct. For a writer, it was an emotionally useful place to be, where no norm seems like the norm. At school there's one norm, and then you go home and there's a different norm, and you're constantly shuttling back and forth between the two, and neither of them seems normal. (Laughs.) Which was lucky, in a way. I think being sort of in between places had a nice way of undermining things all the time.
Q: Historically there's been a connection between the history of the Jews and the idea of disorientation — being forced to move from one place to another all the time.
A: I do think we carry weird residues of events and experiences we've never had personally. I've had a really lucky life, I would say, and yet I'm often nervous and feel like everything's going to fall apart, as if I've been living on some precipice. So we do carry these weird ghosts. We mimic our parents, and if they've behaved in some particular way, we mimic that, even if our lives are complete different from theirs.
Q: You started out as an English major, and then went to medical school, where you focused on psychiatry. Did the body of knowledge that you acquired in that world influence your writing or the stories in this book? I ask because one of the themes in the book seems to be the often labyrinthine ways the mind works.
A: I'd say the thing from that period that affected my writing the most was just the setting of hospitals. There's something about hospitals, especially at night, that's very intimate. People are in their pajamas, and they're in exceptional moments in their lives. The doctors and nurses are in pajamas too. Everyone's sleep cycle is off, and you enter this weird sort of space where you're very intimate with people you don't really know, and you're sort of bubbled off from the normal cycle of things. What I've really carried with me from that time is that mood, more than any more straightforward kind of learning.
Q: There's almost a dreamlike, maybe introspective state that's induced in hospitals.
A: I think so, even though everything is scheduled and rigorous, and has all these systems and habits. But somehow it makes it even more dreamy. There are all these structures, but the thing that's hanging over that structure is very in-between and strangely intimate.
Q: We know Freud's idea that dreams are elaborately indirect responses to things going on in our lives. And in your stories, the characters often buzz around the edge of the problem rather than dealing with it directly. In "The Lost Order," for example, a young woman spends most of her time reacting to just about everything imaginable except for the main issue she's facing, which has to do with the state of her marriage.
A: It's true that I'm sort of stuck on this issue of how we weave these really elaborate tapestries to cover up certain things that in some cases don't even seem that horrible. So yes, I do buy into that part of Freudian psychology. The weird thing about my studies in psychiatry and my early training as an M.D. is that, basically, Freud wasn't even mentioned. I'm really interested in all that stuff, but in my medical education, it was weirdly absent. On a psych ward, the problem is that no one really collapses down into the categories that they're supposed to be in. Everything's so hard to pin down. So much of it was about social issues, drug addiction — practical issues, what's going to functionally help this person. You can't really untangle everything that's going on. Occasionally a patient would come in and be diagnosed with, say, hypothyroidism, which was manifesting as being manic, and you fix the thyroid and they're themselves again. But that's just so rare.
Q: Is that part of why you decided not to pursue medicine as a career?
A: Well, I saw people who were really excellent physicians and I felt I was not going to be one of them. I guess I feel medicine is so important, it really should be done by people who are truly amazing and passionate about it. I felt I would be checked out and always wishing I was at home writing.
Q: So why did you pursue medicine at all, after having been an English major?
A: I was never good at rebellion and I really wanted to please my mom. And you know, I was almost embarrassed that I wanted to be a writer. It just seemed like a really weird way to spend your time. But there was a part of me that still wanted to do it, regardless of my judgment.
Q: Your parents were scientists.
A: My mom did computer science at a research institute for many years. And my dad was a meteorologist, so it wasn't a humanities sort of family at all.
Q: Back to a different aspect of the idea of disorientation: As you write the stories, are you conscious of walking a tightrope in terms of how much your reader is in the dark? As the characters struggle to make sense of things, your reader is doing the same thing. There's good disorientation and bad disorientation, in a way.
A: That's always a huge issue, and on some level I'm always going to fail there, to some extent. I have to be happy with the discomfort that a story makes in the reader's mind. One of my writing teachers used to talk about this Monty Python skit where this guy keeps getting slapped on the face with a wet, cold fish. She would always refer to that skit and say that we should try not to do that in our writing. (Laughs.) But there's always a risk. You sort of think, "Well, I want this story to produce 15 different feelings, including confusion, discomfort, that, that, that." But if the main thing it produces is just the feeling of "This is weird," that's not good. But there's a fine line there.
Q: I guess you just have to trust that your reader's threshold for not really understanding what's happening in the story is up to the task.
A: And the weirder the story is, it just has to feel realistic to the reader. The story "American Innovations," for example, is to me about a feeling that every woman has had, which is that you wake up and think, "This body of mine — is it normal or is it not?" To me, that's a very realistic emotion.
Q: That's a Kafkaesque story, in which the main character discovers that a third breast has inexplicably grown on her back. You count on the reader to just sort of go along with it.
A: Yeah, though I think it only works if the reader finds something emotionally real about it. In Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," for example (in which the hero is inexplicably transformed into a cockroach-like insect), there's something absolutely real about waking up and feeling like you're totally repellent to your family (laughs), and incapable of doing the basic things you're supposed to do. Not that that's what the story is about, but all the emotional spaces in the story feel absolutely familiar. The emotions are not that foreign, even though the situation is totally never going to happen.
Q: So there's "real" reality and "emotional" reality, in a way.
A: I think so. I had a baby recently, so I have babies on my mind all the time, and I was thinking that if you just describe what your day is like with a baby — this happened, that happened — you kind of miss everything important about the experience of being with a baby. But there's this old Japanese legend called "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." It's about an old man who cuts bamboo, and one day he goes out into the bamboo forest and one of the stalks is glowing. And there's this tiny little girl in the bamboo stalk. He takes her home, and he and his wife raise her as their own. They also start finding gold in the bamboo forest. The little girl grows up to be a magnificent beauty, and everyone's her suitor. But she turns them all down because, as it turns out, she's from the moon, and she has to go back. The gold was payment for taking care of her. And even though it's like a thousand years ago, she gets on a spaceship at the end and leaves.
And I think that's exactly what it feels like to have a baby. They magically arrive, they seem like they're from another planet, and they're really compelling and charismatic, especially if you're their mom. (Laughs.) And you do feel suddenly wealthy with love, or something. And so in a weird way, I feel like that crazy myth is the best description of having a baby I've ever come across, even though there's a spaceship at the end.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNance1.
By Rivka Galchen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 175 pages, $24