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The Joy of Being Elusive and Unstable: An Interview with Author Rivka Galchen

What one moment seems to me like nothing, the next moment, through Rivka Galchen’s eyes, becomes the world. I think one could ask nothing more from a her collection of stories.
July 11, 2014, 5:17pm

Photo courtesy of Rivka Galchen

One day I was at a café I’d gone to every Friday for three years, and something strange happened: I chose the vanilla cupcake instead of the chocolate one. Though this seems like an insignificant detail in the narrative of my life, I remember it because before then I’d never ever wanted a vanilla cupcake when there was a chocolate one around. While not remembering much about that day, I recall the look of the vanilla cupcake behind the glass the moment I realized I was going to ask for it, and my sitting down at the table with it to tell my friend I was worried for myself. All of a sudden I could imagine other preferences altering—maybe I’d start needing to wear weird hats like the woman at the table near ours, for example (except that by then they wouldn’t seem weird to me anymore)—and even though I was making a joke of it, the joke was a cover for real anxiety. I should add that my former husband and I had recently separated. After getting along together for years, we couldn’t seem to be in the same room anymore for an hour without our conversation erupting into mutual attack, and something as seemingly banal as not wanting my favorite dessert and wanting something else in its place scared me because it reminded me that much of what I thought of as “me” was up for question. What would I want next? Who would I become?

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Reading American Innovations by Rivka Galchen is likely to remind you of similar instances, to cause you to turn and link them in your head in new ways, to find yourself through what seems like the story of the loss of it. The world of the self—of what one accepts as the reality of the self—seems to crack open when characters do what they don’t usually do, like answer phone calls from “unavailable” numbers, get manicure-pedicures, and join in on strangers’ conversation. In reading Rivka Galchen your own story will feel altered because the way she builds a story and sees is so different from what is usual (though she seems like at least a second cousin of Haruki Murakami and maybe a first of Roberto Bolaño). At the same time your life will seem more mysterious, it will also make more sense, and soon after you chuckle over what seems light and anecdotal and pure entertainment you’ll find yourself stepping into the dark with the companionship of a voice that feels enchantingly like home and takes nothing it does—or doesn’t do—for granted. Of the mother in the story “Wild Berry Blue,” Galchen, through her protagonist, writes, “What seemed like the world to me often revealed itself, through her eyes, to be nothing”; and of Galchen’s writing I would like to pose the opposite effect—that what one moment seems to me like nothing, the next moment, through Galchen’s eyes, becomes the world. I think one could ask nothing more from a collection of stories, and I encourage you to let the history of your lost selves be disturbed and revived by American Innovations.

Rivka Galchen is also the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances, and is a regular contributor of fiction and essays to the New Yorker, Harper's, and the New York Times. We communicated over email.

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VICE: Something I really like about your stories is your sense of people becoming objects at which psycho-emotional stuff is (often) inappropriately directed. There is an awareness of characters trying to sift through that stuff to determine what is and isn’t a valid response from other people, from the world even. To determine what is absurd or mysterious or just plain insane.

So I want to start with breasts. Or, more specifically, the breast-like growth that appears on the protagonist's lower back in the story “American Innovations.” Which is I understand inspired in part by Gogol's "The Nose." Would you tell me about the conception and growth of this story? [For those who haven’t yet read the story, I will briefly summarize it here:  A woman wakes up with a third breast located on her lower back and tries to decide what to do about it, and while this is happening she deals with other characters’ various reactions to it that include attraction and offense.]
Rivka Galchen: I was going to say that I couldn't remember where the idea for this story started, but then as I was thinking I couldn't remember, I remembered why I didn't want to remember: It was pregnancy. I had never felt like the captain of my body, but I had the sense of myself as a kind of first mate at least, and suddenly I was barely a deckhand, and the mutiny was so public. Now mutiny can be a good thing, of course. And there was nothing inherently bad, or inherently good, about the new physiology—it’s just essential—but it did heighten the experience women already have—maybe men too—that it makes sense to people to just talk to you about your body and tell you about it… that coupled with being seven, eight, even nine months pregnant and some people not even noticing… so I think that strange confluence of visibility and invisibility, and of private and public, led me back to the Gogol story.  "The Nose"—in which a man's nose leaves his face and goes about town with airs of its own—literalizes metaphors and metonymies that made sense about the male official at the center of that story, and so I wondered how a story about a third breast—a story that was structurally akin, but with different chirality—would unfold. I so love your observation about what happens when we get flattened out into objects for other people, or when they flatten out for us—I feel like you've described there so well that strange shimmer that comes from our fantasies about ourselves bumping up against other peoples' fantasies about us. With this particular story, I found it making its way out to thinking that odd dance through finally in that simultaneously public and alien sphere of online comments.

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Now that you say this about “American Innovations,” I realize I see it too in other stories, for example in “The Lost Order.” The narrator says that “a tidy look for a female body, feminine or not feminine, is elusive and unstable.  Dressing like a woman is like working with color instead of with black and white.” I’ve not been pregnant (though I might try it one day), but I have had men and women—strangers sometimes—directly make comments about my body, and I do think it’s more common for the female form to be openly commented on, and I will think about how as a female one is so often being referred to her own surface and shape. Do you think this could in part have to do with it being, as you say, “elusive and unstable?” That this sort of commenting is a way to try to contain what is “elusive and unstable?”
I hadn't thought of it that way, quite, but that's great, revealing. I think it's part of that perennial human comedy, that we have these bodies that are just out there: occupying space, getting hungry, falling asleep in public. I don't think it's uncommon to feel like a ghost haunting a very weird machine. And it doesn't really matter how much we read and come to understand that the mind is the body, that there's no sharp dualism, etc… but there's still the phenomena of how it feels, which is that the body is going around making a fool of us—the whole body is like that Gogol Nose, lording around town, embarrassing its owner. And I think when other people comment on our bodies, it exaggerates this basic feeling of that part of us which feels less personal—the body—being treated as more real by others than our inner lives, our minds, which is what seems more real and personal to us, more essential. It's as if other people's comments verify something not quite true, and yet maybe truer than we'd like to think… it's tricky, since the verifiers are themselves such weird bad scientists of a kind.

And I do think this is probably heightened for women more than it is for men, just because it's so overwhelming as a woman, the number of messages. It’s the radio station that never can be turned off. I even think it's telling the way that the names for women are so much more diverse and fluctuate so much more over the decades, whereas the names for men, if you look at, say, the Social Security register, have been topped out with Michael and David and John for year after year after year after year. Men live in a very different kind of constraint, a more stable one.

Tying in with this, you seem as a writer drawn to what is elusive and unstable about not only the body but the self and the self’s perception of its reality. In other words, mystery. You’re so good at creating a sense of mystery in the most subtle ways. I get the sense you’re much more interested in writing into the mystery than solving it. That the purpose is more to palpate the shape of the mystery, to make it possible to enter it fully. Am I off base in thinking this? Do you see this in your work? (May I speculate: Was this possibly shaped by an important early reading experience? By a trauma? By a craving for God? Etc.)
Yes, yes, yes, yes. Or really: I think in a good "mystery" we find the key to the solution, and it really is the key, but then it turns out the key is also a keyhole, onto a much more vast mystery, one we are just barely perceiving, like light from the big bang. I would describe this as a preoccupation of mine, except that I think it's a preoccupation, unconsciously at least, for pretty much everyone. Even people who are drawn to certainties—doesn't all that declaiming with confidence sound like a fearful and childish little protest at the edge of a vast dark? I love, for example, the shape of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe. That's the Dupin story in which we are given a perfect, wholly understandable solution to the mystery of the murders of the two women—it was done by an Ourang-Ourang. That's mostly how the story lives in memory, for its monkey ending. But if you read it again, you get stuck on other aspects: What terrified everyone about the murder was not its violence but that it didn't seem to be motivated by money… and then you meet the poor sailor who was hoping to make some money by selling the Ourang-Ourang, a creature held captive, and the way the Ourang-Ourang came to have a razor blade was that it saw its human captor shaving in a mirror and wanted to do the same… the real mystery of the story basically expands out and out to trade, to capitalism, to French colonialism, even to rationality…  there's this long, strange first half of the story before the murders even get discussed in which we find out how the narrator and Dupin sleep all day and are up all night, they almost seem like lovers, and Dupin's rational method of deduction, well, when he explains it to the narrator, it's such an over-the-top, ludicrous set of free associations that it almost seems like a joke on rationality… even as the power of the thinking is shown as well… so the story opens up onto all these much larger mysteries… Anyhow, I find that sort of shape very interesting and very worthwhile.

Also, I often ask myself, Well, what is it that fiction is good at? In my family, who are not particularly readers, there would just be this very straightforward question again and again—why would I want to read something that's not literally true? Which, I mean, is a genuine question. And there are many subjects or experiences about which I would rather watch a documentary, or read a long article, or experience it firsthand—so what is it that fiction can do well? And I think that has something to do with these spaces that are not better illuminated in other ways, these murky places that don't yield much to other forms of investigation.

Why do you think these murky places are the ones that draw you? What are you after?
I don't know, but I guess I lean into the not knowing and hope something turns up? For instance, I recently learned that Murk Monday was the term in Scotland for a great solar eclipse from 1652. That's not quite something, but it's almost something.

Alternately: maybe aftermath.