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How Much of This Author’s Weirdness Is Our Weirdness, Too?

In an interview, Rivka Galchen—who has a new collection out this week—channels Kafka, posing complex questions to herself, and us

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Rivka Galchen. (Sandy Tait)
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Among Franz Kafka’s many parables, he wrote a meta-parable: “The Parable on Parables.” It is a commentary on parable itself, and by the time it’s over, you’ve likely either learned all you need to know or are left feeling bereft, holding an empty sack. Or, you may end up having the ultimate Kafka experience of feeling both—staring into the abyss while it stares back. Kafka tells us that the “words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have.” A parable merely tells us “that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already.” But even if we know this discouraging fact, do we ever know it enough?

The answer, according to Rivka Galchen’s new short story collection American Innovations, is, in essence, no. Stability goes out the window in these stories, and we are left with passive narrators (or passive protagonists) who under-react to otherworldly experiences with such deadpan precision that we can’t help but feel the uncanny acutely—sometimes baroquely so. Life, all of these stories tells us, is absurd and made even more so with narrators who witness strange things and are oddly passive in the face of it. Is this what we do every day without even knowing it? How much of Galchen’s weirdness is our weirdness, too?

On the back of American Innovations, there is a photo of Galchen with her hair piled up, giving her a look that recalls Amy Winehouse, if Amy Winehouse were taller, healthier, wore less makeup, and was your psychiatrist or creative writing professor. Indeed, like Keats, James Joyce, and J.G. Ballard, Galchen is a writer who studied medicine, except that unlike those writers, she actually got her M.D. and was indeed a practicing psychiatrist before she received her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia, where she teaches. Her 2008 novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, based on her thesis, is told from the perspective of an older male psychiatrist convinced that his younger wife has been replaced by a double.

I first discovered Galchen’s work a couple of years ago at a reading where I saw her recite, with equal parts bewilderment and calculation, a story titled “Once an Empire,” narrated by a woman who witnesses all of the contents of her Manhattan apartment emptied by thieves, and who just watches blankly, wondering what it means. This character is not merely a doormat—she doesn’t even have a doormat anymore. She just sees the weirdness of it all—having possessions, not having them, then knowing she will acquire new ones. The tiny little comforts she gets from her possessions will have to be replaced with new little comforts. What’s all this stuff about, anyway? When Galchen read the story, she never broke character. She played it straight, taking us right to the place where Kafka also directs us: a well-wrought absurdity.

I recently met with Galchen in Manhattan near her new apartment in the bewilderingly gentrified West 30s, where she lives on the same block as Mary Karr. We soon realized the place we’d chosen would be too loud for an interview, so we moved to someplace that turned out to be louder. In hindsight, that seemed inevitable.

“The method for me starts with someone telling me a parable and I don’t get it, but I try to work with it and decode it anyway,” she said at one point. “With almost all my stories, I have an intuition that things are going to fit together. And then I go over them again and again, and they usually turn out to be like secret correspondences—secret even from me, for at least five to seven drafts. The parable is not being able to get past that censor in yourself. Our censors can be very eccentric, and they can deform things.”

***

According to Galchen, the stories in American Innovations poured out of her while she was trying to write a second novel. This time, all of the first-person narrators are women, around Galchen’s age, all of whom are both acutely passive and more insightful than they seem to know. In “The Lost Order,” a woman who, like Walter Mitty, lives in daydreams, finds herself answering a call with a wrong number barking an order of Chinese food, and is unable to stop the caller, herself, and her husband on a downward spiral of delusion; “order” is meant on several levels. “ ‘The Lost Order’ is like a food order, and it’s like an order that’s fallen to disorder, and then it’s like a species that’s no longer around,” she explained to me. “The kind of character she is, for me, is the kind of person I’ve been in love with my whole life. To me they’re from another planet, and they’re very frustrating, and they’re not even nice, but I do feel like they’re faithful to some better world that doesn’t exist. They’re from another place, another time.”

‘Absurdity is weirdly precise. It seems to be like a parable, contained and whole and accurate.’

“The Region of Unlikeliness” is narrated by a meek ingénue librarian who enters a strange friendship with two older intellectual males, and their rituals of coffee, arguments, and movies come to a halt when one of the men dies (or does he?) and another one explains the Grandfather Paradox by way of Oedipus and lands the narrator in a frightening inquiry into fate. The person writing these stories is entertaining you and is also playing mind games, but they’re not the kinds of mind games that disrupt your life. They disturb the universe enough for pleasure—or at least pleasure for the kinds of readers who like Kafka parables.

The person who wrote these stories graciously welcomed me into her brain for the duration of a dinner. Galchen is warm, approachable, laughs easily, and has a soprano voice that often veers upward at the end of a sentence, making some of her statements sound like questions. I brought up the Kafka “Parable on Parables” as a kind of guide to the perplexed for her work, and she kept coming back to it.

“I’m definitely very drawn to that sensation of making sense of something, and then as you approach the kind of sensible description, it doesn’t quite hold,” she said, manifesting the thing she does in these stories. “In everyday life, you have a rubric that makes you feel like you can move forward and you can catch a bus and cross the street. But in the stories, I always think my method is maybe why they come out the way they do. I try to be on top of it and I think I know what I’m doing. I feel that I’m not in control of all the stuff that interests me along the way. I’m not in control of it. A parable, especially in the New Testament, is a pedagogical tool. It’s something that could travel well and land in any soil and pop up and seem relevant. The Hebrew Bible is a little more straightforward, even if it has covert meanings.”

And what of Job? Is it not a parable? I asked her. “Job seems almost like realism, except that it couldn’t have been a bet between God and the devil,” she replied, taking pauses to think this through. “It seems out of keeping with the tradition. But it feels too long to be a parable. It doesn’t open up like a Japanese flower.”

In contrast, Galchen’s stories open like inquiries into storytelling itself, while also keeping the reader enthralled from one sentence to the next. What links these stories is not only deadpan meekness, but also absurdity, a theme Galchen takes up like a virtuoso. “I didn’t mean to write a collection where every narrator was a weirdly implacable woman,” she insisted. “But I felt like there was a covert project that emerged. Whether it’s paradox or absurdity or dramatic irony, there are certain things that literally reveal something right in front of us that we can’t see. Those are the main tools: paradox, absurdity, and irony. It’s like a flag. It doesn’t explain anything, it just says here’s something that we know, and it’s not imprecise. If you try to talk about it too much, you’re always wrong or you leave something out. Absurdity is weirdly precise. And it seems to be like a parable, contained and whole and accurate in a way that talking about something in a straightforward way is not.”

Some of these stories reveal their absurdity from the beginning. Some reveal themselves in their endings, which use facts in a way that make the real surreal. One surreal fact about Galchen is that, even though she seems to be the consummate New Yorker, she was actually born and raised in Norman, Oklahoma. “The Dean of the Arts” begins with a search for a book by an under-the-radar high-school acquaintance that turns out to be a doppelganger; the real version of the friend is a much nicer guy, one who hailed from Oklahoma, and who has a seemingly random encounter with Ralph Ellison, also from Oklahoma, at the end. When this kid was reading Invisible Man for a high-school class, he found “Ellison, R.” in the Manhattan phone book and spoke to him for hours. (Ellison, R. was deeply engaged in not finishing his second novel and probably welcomed the distraction.)

“I think of the emotional core of ‘Dean of the Arts’ as having something to do with failing or betraying actual intimates,” she said. “It’s like having a surplus or remainder of love and a desire to connect that ends up going in a weird direction. The Ralph Ellison anecdote is an example of that, and it’s a true story, with just a few details changed. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just lining up these different stories. I found different elements that I thought were resonant. What captivates me about that Ralph Ellison anecdote is partially the magic and generosity of it and the substantive connection between Ellison and the kid who called him. They somehow offered succor to each other. At the same time, Ellison wasn’t able to offer that to people with whom he had other connections. The center of that story is that emotional habit that some people have. But I didn’t think that when I was writing it. It’s not the only thing there, but in the parable form, it’s that idea of it, whatever it is.”

Inevitably, the check came, and just as inevitably, Galchen received a text from home, telling her that she was needed to get her baby to stop crying and go back to bed. Before taking her leave, she added something: “One thing I loved about medical training is you start finding out that the idea that doctors know what’s wrong with you is really a fantasy,” she confided. “The questions are more concrete. Is this patient going to die or not? Can I alleviate this patient’s pain? Every insight only yields so much.”

I walked into the Manhattan night wondering if I had been enlightened, or if that same Kafkaesque absurdity would keep presenting itself and I had just been walking a treadmill. We all have our problems, after all. Do we want a prescription, or a story that won’t solve anything, except to make us think deeper about our perplexity, in a way that could even entertain us? It was clear that Galchen spent her life thinking about such things, at least when inspiration struck.

“To go back to Kafka, I’m interested in this desire to bow down and please and submit, and they all have that kind of passivity,” she said in a tone that seemed deliberately passive. “In one way or another, they’re comfortable with being effaced by the situation. I’m interested in the idea of being a zero and not influencing anything, literally not part of the equation.” The narrators of her stories are certainly this way. And since parable was our theme, how do parable and everyday life work out in the end? I kept walking into the night, thinking about my dinner with Galchen, and thinking about how Kafka ended his “Parable on Parables”:

Concerning this a man once said: Why such reluctance? If you only followed the parables you yourselves would become parables and with that rid yourself of all your daily cares.

Another said: I bet that is also a parable.

The first said: You have won.

The second said: But unfortunately only in parable.

The first said: No, in reality: in parable you have lost.

Do we win in reality or lose in parable? Galchen walks the line and tries to do both. And she does this by writing stories that, as Kafka said elsewhere, “must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” Life has a way of coming up short, certainly failing to bear likeness to parable. Still, one might as well embrace the absurdity. This is the only life we have.

***

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How Much of This Author’s Weirdness Is Our Weirdness, Too?

In an interview, Rivka Galchen—who has a new collection out this week—channels Kafka, posing complex questions to herself, and us