Time travel and migrating objects

Several chapters in Rivka Galchen’s shortstory collection aren’t easy to get into, but all of them exhibit her distinctive and artful prose – and are seriously funny.

Rivka Galchen (photo credit: SANDY TAIT)
Rivka Galchen
(photo credit: SANDY TAIT)
The narrator of “Wild Berry Blue” – one of 10 stories in Rivka Galchen’s quirky and disquieting new book, American Innovations – remembers the crush she had when she was nine years old on Roy, a cashier at McDonald’s.
Her father, a secular Jew who says things adults don’t usually say to kids – about the Oedipus complex, General Rommel, and the straits of Bosporus – tells her Roy is a recovering alcoholic.
She then discovers a yellow piece of paper, torn from a magazine, Scotch-taped to her dad’s bathroom mirror, which may explain “the possessed feeling” she has because of Roy.
“And human speech is but a cracked kettle upon which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to,” it reads, “while we long to make music that –.”
This incomplete thought is silly, she decides.
“It’s all very silly.” But she’ll become the kind of person who still thinks about the stranger in a green jacket who sat across from her at the Motor Vehicle Bureau and the blue-eyed man with a singed earlobe whom she saw at Baskin-Robbins.
She will never get over Roy. She will “never get over anyone.”
The author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), Galchen has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. Like the narrator of “Wild Berry Blue,” she comes from a family of secular Jews who emigrated from Israel to Toronto (where she was born) and then to Norman, Oklahoma, where she lived from 1981 until 1994.
Galchen received an MD from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, with a focus on psychiatry, in 2003, and an MFA from Columbia University.
Although several stories in American Innovations aren’t all that easy to get into, all of them exhibit Galchen’s distinctive and artful prose – and are seriously funny.
Some plots are realistic; others deal with time travel, “the veil” between the living and the dead, and the decision of the objects in an apartment – including the ironing board the narrator has “forgotten” in a closet, and a pink plastic fork with “Colorado Rockies” engraved on its handle – to leave by way of the fire escape.
Just about all of the stories feature individuals who are trying, without much success, to encounter someone or become someone upon whom esteem, affection and hope “are projected.” They accept or deny what they learn about their lives – and life. In “Dean of the Arts,” the narrator admits that The Collected Correspondence of Manuel Macheko – who wrote to Menachem Begin, claiming that Begin’s last name was confusing, and to Barbara Bush, offering a broccoli recipe that might convince her husband to take a new view of the vegetable – exerted the kind of power over her “more often attributed to a Vermeer.” Perhaps Macheko contacted “glittering strangers” not with the hope that they would get to know him, she speculates, but with “the more reasonable hope” that they wouldn’t, even if they replied. After all, exchanges with strangers or near strangers, she claims, “can be a drug; or maybe it’s fair to use the term ‘medicine.’” In “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman,” “J” gets off the phone with her husband, and is scared because she realizes that one is supposed to be “content and complete on one’s own” and from that position “truly give love.” Later on, “Q,” her stepmother, informs her that her friend’s children are selfish, but that 300 people, most of them from the Toastmaster’s Club, visited him in the hospital. “It’s really about being friendly and taking care of other people by cheering them up,” she maintains. And when an 87-year-old lady deems it strange that people these days can’t be alone, J blurts out, “I’m here with my mom” – a word she had never before applied to Q.
Galchen’s characters seem intent on distancing themselves from themselves, even when detachment and irony don’t work. And she leaves them – and us – searching for a more uplifting insight or innovation.
It appears, albeit fleetingly, in “Once an Empire.” In that story, the last one in the collection, the narrator confesses that she enjoys going to the movies, no matter what is playing, because she can “stay in touch without having to talk to people,” whom she likes in general but finds “in specific, kind of difficult.” When the objects in her apartment depart, she moves to a furnished room in a dormitory, stops going to the movies, and habituates crafts and antiques markets, hoping her things will turn up. When they do, in an unexpected place, she remembers the day her mom bought that pink fork: “She’d liked my hair that day” and set it back in two tight braids. “It was just a pretty nice day.
We had been pleased with each other. I really loved that fork.”
Recognizing that she’s had so many bad ideas in her life, the narrator decides to visit her mother, whom she hasn’t seen for quite some time: “She might have advice for me. I wouldn’t necessarily have to take it. I could put my hair in braids. I could stay with her awhile.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.