Field Geology: An Interview with Rivka Galchen


At Work


Photo: Sandy Tait

In 2008, Rivka Galchen published Atmospheric Disturbances, a novel about a psychiatrist who wakes up one day to discover that his wife has been substituted by a replica. He subscribes to the delusions of a patient (who believes he can control the weather) to explain her disappearance. What James Wood referred to as the narrator’s first-person “double unreliability” made for a richly inconclusive novel about the confusion and mystery of love.

In her new story collection, American Innovations, Galchen, who has a background in medicine, returns us to worlds in which weird things happen. A woman watches the objects in her Brooklyn apartment leave of their own volition; a student of Library Sciences develops a third breast; refrigerated string cheese won’t stay put. Galchen’s stories suggest oppositions that dissolve in their own reversals: real things take on the patina of the artificial, while the fantastic and strange can feel more real than what we call real life. To read her stories is something like using a map without contours or coordinates; it’s impossible to plan your trip.

Over e-mail, Galchen and I discussed fiction’s relationship to field geology, the peculiarities of the short story as a form, and the allure of McDonald’s. Galchen is exhilaratingly imaginative, precise, and generous.

Why is the story a form you return to?

Short stories feel found to me—I like that about them. Of course, they’re actually not found, they’re written, just as novels are written, but they seem to have a more dense and unchangeable core than novels do, or at least it seems like one reaches the immutable core faster.

I like how stories can feel like some shiny thing on the ground, something that might be malachite, or might be a fragment of a comet, or might be a rusted old ignition. The writing process for a short story feels more like field geology, where you keep turning the thing over and over, noting its qualities in detail, hammering at it, putting it near flame, pouring different acids on it, and then finally you figure out what it is, or you just give up and mount it on a ring and have an awkward chunky piece of jewelry that seems weirdly dominating but that you for some reason like. I could be wrong about field geology here.

Where do you find your stories?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s immaterial things rooting around to find their material. For example, I have a story set in large part in a McDonald’s, there’s a young girl at the center of it, it’s in many ways a kind of love story, but why McDonald’s? McDonald’s was just sitting there in the old costume trunk of the back brain, and there was some inchoate emotion trying to play its little tune, and for whatever congregation of reasons McDonald’s was ideally useful to that emotion. It gave it the right language—probably in part because of that weird residue of how enchanting McDonald’s used to be when we were kids, how it was all an outsize luxury. And then, of course, it looks so different to us today. I think it has something to do with the question, What is it fiction is actually good at? What can it do that’s not better done with, say, a long piece of journalism, or a photograph, or a TV show? And that, in turn, has something to do with the intangible murk from which stories start to organize themselves. That intangible murk is the part that feels found to me.

The story you’re referring to, “Wild Berry Blue,” might be called realist. Does it stand apart from your more recent stories?

I guess I think of all of my stories as realism in the emotional sense. There’s this very ancient Japanese myth, the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. In it, there’s an old, poor, childless bamboo cutter, and one day he comes across a stalk of bamboo that’s glowing. In the glowing stalk, he finds a tiny baby girl. He brings the baby home to his wife, they raise her as their own, they begin to find gold in the bamboo they harvest, the girl grows rapidly into an uncanny beauty whom even the emperor falls in love with, but she turns down all the suitors. It turns out she is from the moon, she had been sent away, but now it’s time for her to return to the place where she really belongs, she boards a spaceship and returns to the moon!

It’s weird to think of this as a story at least twelve hundred years old. But when I read it recently, I thought, This is the most straightforward description I have ever come across of what it feels like to be near a baby. They seem to come from another world, they have a strange charisma, life seems bright and rich in their aura, and one day they will leave you. Saying the baby is seven pounds, that it nurses for twenty minutes or so every three hours, its name is this, its eyelashes are that … all that realistic detail seems to just miss the whole essence of being with a baby.

In “The Lost Order,” the narrator receives a call from a man who mistakes her for a receptionist at a Chinese restaurant. She vaguely assures him his lemon chicken is on its way. What interests you about phone calls?

The disembodied language is great to work with. You get a glimpse of the bizarre little dream maps of a character. There are so many fewer physical cues coercing callers away from their misperceptions. In that sense, calls are closer to reading—the way the newspaper, for example, doesn’t cue you how to read it. The other day I was reading an article and it said, “…forces encountered hospitalities…” I paused and reread. It said, “… forces encountered hostilities…”

Your stories are funny and playful, but they don’t contain jokes.

I used to watch a lot of reruns of Get Smart, the spy-spoof show. One of the running gags was that any time Maxwell Smart or Agent 99 or Chief had something very important or top secret to communicate, they would lower the Cone of Silence, which was an actual Plexiglas-looking thing. It was ridiculous, and it also tended to malfunction in one way or another—and then a further joke was how banal so much of what was said in there was. I think that gets at the way that nearly every moment of every day, every interaction and comment, if it’s held up to the right light or juxtaposed against the right thing—well, there’s always a metaphorical cone of silence there, which makes manifest the humor already present in the words or situation.

Many of your narrators avoid difficult or complex feelings. In “The Northern Side Was Covered with Fire,” the narrator seems to care less that her husband has just left her than that he has taken with him her favorite Parmesan grater. A fan letter from a prisoner encourages her to hypothesize an explanation for a mysterious, sky-splitting incident in Siberia.

I think it’s realism. When something is very emotionally large, it’s a very human thing to walk around it for a short or long while and get a sense of its size and character. That’s my theory about what’s going on when you see people really lose it over, say, someone walking slowly on the sidewalk. Surely it’s not inherently that upsetting. So it must be that we’re catching the flak from some other, distant explosion.

Often the apparent engagement with something very large, well, I think it’s just that—only an apparent engagement. Think of the rise in spirit photography—evidence that the dead are still around!—after the Civil War and again after World War I. Or the rise of the mystery novel—something is wrong here, surely we can solve it—in Japan after World War II. It takes so, so long to even begin to understand things. Very shortly after 9/11, when I was a medical student at Mount Sinai Hospital, I would see people wearing T-shirts that said “I Survived 9/11.” There’s something darkly comic about thinking of those T-shirts now. It has to do with just how from the center of things that was, even though it was at the center.

Your narrators often seek out certainties on the Internet, which is a presence throughout the collection.

On the Internet, we’re like kids staring at our faces in spoons. But since the Internet is sort of everything, it seems like it’s impossible to say anything true about it. I remember a kids’ book about a family, set in two seasons. In the wintertime, every word spoken by anyone in the family freezes. Then in the spring everyone in the family starts getting mad at one another, having bizarre ideas. It takes them awhile to realize that this is because the words from the winter have thawed, and that’s what they’re hearing—these old words from months ago. The Internet seems to me to be something like that, where what used to be passing thoughts and rumors—things intended to be spoken, intended to vanish after a moment or two—have stayed on, frozen, then thawed, then frozen, then thawed.

How do you think the idea of diagnosis affects your fiction?

The medical field is a nice cure for the stupidity of certainty—you see that there are so rarely “cures.” So much of medicine—most of it, really—doesn’t crossword-puzzle out into a clean-edged diagnosis. Medicine explains things up to a point, and then hits a wall. So much of it gives only a sensation of explanation, a fuzzy foundation from which to generate a treatment plan. It’s not like physics—that doesn’t hit a wall until you get very, very, very far. I think it’s something medical professionals understand better than the rest of us, the way that they’re constantly bumping up against both the uses and limits of their taxonomies and protocols. There are so few cases that have the clean shape of, say, snakebite from snake x, treat with antivenom y. Fiction often does its best work in those same wide spaces where data starts to lose its conclusive usefulness.

Alice Whitwham is the events coordinator at McNally Jackson Books.