In Practice

A practicing doctor's views on psychiatry and contemporary culture.

Why Borges Didn't Write Novels

Why Borges didn't write novels

A month back, an editor at a hip Webzine gave me a copy of Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen. The editor knows I like cutting-edge fiction and novels by doctors; this gift qualified on both counts.

The book, which receives a glowing front page review by the cultural arbiter Liesl Schillinger in the current New York Times Book Review, concerns an aging psychiatrist who exhibits Capgras delusion, the belief that someone familiar has been replaced by an impostor. I admired the book’s opening: “Last December, a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.” The genre is the close study of the alienated outsider, a type of writing I ordinarily love. Galchen plays with the paraphernalia of the modern novel — she includes (in homage to W. G. Sebald?) her own family photos and fragments of her father’s work on meteorology. I like the notion that we can’t predict the weather because of an "initial values problem": we can’t describe the weather as it is now. And Galchen can write a solid sentence. I thought, she can do it. But then the premise went on and on. Sure, do we ever know the other, can we escape our own perspective, how can we love constantly when people change, psychiatrist-turned-psychotic, familiarity of the uncanny — paradox, got it. I thought, “This is why Borges didn’t write novels.”

I know that some readers of this blog will read Atmospheric Disturbances. So tell me, does Galchen pull it off? Or does she build a strong opening and then run out of steam?

Whether or no, that original set-up, the main characters, the convincing evocation of thought and voice — everything about the opening of the book says, here is a promising doctor-writer.

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Peter D. Kramer is a psychiatrist and author. His books include Against Depression and Listening to Prozac.

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