Book of the Week: ‘American Innovations’ by Rivka Galchen

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Rivka Galchen’s 2008 debut, Atmospheric Disturbances, fit nicely alongside the other books Marco Roth dubbed “neuronovels,” literary fiction “wherein the mind becomes the brain.” It was witty and weird enough to earn her comparisons to Murakami and Pynchon, but the sometimes bewildering book just felt like it was going a little too off the rails, even for a novel with a narrator as unreliable as Galchen’s Dr. Leo Liebenstein. Atmospheric Disturbances showed a ton of promise, but in fiction, promise doesn’t always deliver.

Since 2008, Galchen has published short stories and written a Times “Bookends” column, and, although her first attempt left me a little underwhelmed, I’d been waiting for the announcement that a new book was on the way. American Innovations, Galchen’s new collection of stories, shows that the author can take all of that wit and talent and boil it down into something concise and immensely enjoyable. Not only that, but in the short-story format, she can do it over and over.

While the flap on the dust jacket states that the stories in American Innovations “are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, re-imagined from the perspective of female characters,” you wouldn’t necessarily have to be familiar with James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to read and reread the book’s opener, “The Lost Order.” The story starts off with the narrator telling us about the time her phone rang, with “Unavailable” popping up in the caller ID. For some reason she answers the phone, and takes a food delivery order for a man who has called the wrong number. It’s a silly anecdote, and once Galchen starts in on the next paragraph, it isn’t immediately clear how it fits in with the rest of the story, but then one thing unfolds, then another, and you’re going back over things to try and figure out if the woman is depressed and in denial, or just likes to see how far she can take a lie.

The book’s title story is maybe the most interesting. “American Innovations” is a tale that “revisits” Gogol’s “The Nose,” something Philip Roth tried (and largely failed) to do with his 1972 novella (which also mixed in a nice spoonful of Kafka) “The Breast.” It’s here that we see the sort of brilliance Galchen only hinted at in her debut novel. Oddly enough, Galchen’s retelling of Gogol’s story also involves breasts; first there’s the narrator’s aunt, who she called Tina Turner, “because her styling was similar — also, she had once seen Tina Turner in a grocery store in Los Angeles, and they nodded knowingly at each other.” Her aunt tells her about her “September 11th,” when she noticed a lump that she was sure was cancer, but ends up being one of her silicone breast implants, slipped down into her back. Over a year later, the narrator finds her own lump, wonders if it was her “inheritance,” worries it might be cancer, and, well, I won’t really ruin it for you from there. Let’s just say that Pinterest and BuzzFeed make an appearance.

All in all, American Innovations is a joy to read. It has a few awkward moments, since few short story collections are without their little bumps in the road. But overall, Rivka Galchen has delivered a little book full of tiny wonders.