Rivka Galchen, American Innovations

July 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

That mirror claimed there was a substantial lump on the right side of my lower back.  An anatomically anomalous and yet familiar-seeming lump.

I would have just looked away but it was like seeing a burn victim or a really beautiful person:  I couldn’t unstare.  My hand moved to the mass.  The mass liked being touched.  I lifted my shirt.  I would say what I saw was a wow.  Even thought it was modest, maybe a B cup in size.  It didn’t need support.  It manifested all the expected anatomy, the detailing of which I feel is private.  What I saw was really textbook.  Save for its location, there on my back.  As if to hide from me.  Or as if to discreetly maintain an unacknowledged child.  Though the discreetness would work only in a world in which we meet one another exclusively head-on, or possibly in three-quarters profile.  Because in profile the anatomy really could not be denied. (“American Innovations,” p. 60 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Reading Rivka Galchen’s first story collection, American Innovations, is akin to roaming the streets of your hometown or favorite city in a dream.  Everything seems to be in its place, yet there is something odd about it nonetheless.  Familiarity in such cases breeds not contempt but instead startled surprise.  This is especially true with the most “natural” of things.  The result of such dreams is a heightened sense of reality amongst the most irreal things, but with the implicit understanding that the “naturalness” of these elements is what makes the dream elements most unsettling, not whatever deviations from the mundane there might be.

Galchen’s stories surprise in large part because so many of them are so familiar to readers versed in classic short fiction.  Take for instance the titular (no pun intended!) “American Innovations.”  It possesses much in common with Nicolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” with the nose being replaced with an extra breast.  So it would be natural for the reader to expect the narrator’s musings to be shaped in part by how Gogol’s narrator tells his story.  However, Galchen doesn’t fall into the easy trap of emulating or “updating” that story.  What she does is confound reader expectations, exploring different facets of the situation than what her model stories do.  Like that dream described above, it is the “naturalness” of the original becoming strange to the reader through Galchen’s subtle alterations of tone, tenor, and narrative progression.

The narrators of these ten stories are women of various ages, usually in their 20s-40s.  They are Americans, secular or religious or perhaps in that vague in-between.  They muse, they argue, they make their way through a world that seems to be against them.  As the narrator in “American Innovations” puts it:

However, the majority of the censoriousness, ridicule, and loving support was directed not at the altered beauty from a fictional dystopic 2084 in a red dress and thigh-high black leather boots but, rather, at me.  I was an ugly who needed to get over myself, or someone bravely making my own choices, or a fourth-wave feminist, or a symptom of fakesterdom, or a rebel against the tyranny of the “natural,” or a person who really, really needed help… (p. 70)

This sense of questing for understanding, or perhaps it is close to an acceptance that one does not have to have all facets of her life defined for her, might leave some readers nonplussed.  Galchen seems to argue without stating it directly that her characters, and perhaps women in general, do not exist just to be defined by others.  As one of her narrators observes in the Roberto Bolaño-referencing “Dean of the Arts”:  “Whose life was this?  Not mine.” (p. 117)

These refusals to follow reader expectations does not mean that the stories are poor or incomprehensible.  No, the opposite usually is the case.  Rather, these tales surprise the reader, leaving her to cast aside certain paradigms in order to grasp more fully what Galchen’s characters are actually stating.  The result is a challenging yet easy-to-grasp collection of stories that possess their own charms independent of the source material they reference.

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