Typically it takes bribery to get me to read straight through a short story collection. It happened last year with George Saunders’s masterful, much-feted Tenth of December, but the last (and only) time before that may have been college, when a knowing instructor passed me Haruki Murakami’s The Elephant Vanishes. Reading short story collections—no matter how cohesive, how gracefully threaded together, how substantive—has always left me feeling like I recently housed some Chinese food: disgustingly overwhelmed for a short time, and then starved for more nutrients.
Rivka Galchen’s debut collection (which follows her critically lauded novel, Atmospheric Disturbances) is like a multivitamin. Everything one could possibly need is dispensed via dense, tiny, mysterious pellets. Each story offers a fortified shot of literary enrichment, a dose of characters and genres and settings we didn’t even know we needed, but that now feels vital and enlivening. It’s a master class in cohesion—and restraint.
Galchen reimagines classic short stories (Gogol’s “The Nose,” Borges’s “The Aleph”) and reorients the narrative perspective: each is now first-person and from a woman’s point of view. The opening story takes one of Murakami’s bumbling middle-aged male protagonists (in this case, Toru of “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” which is also the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) and turns him into a freshly-stuck-at-home housewife. She’s searching for her husband’s wedding ring instead of a cat, interrupted by a stranger on the phone who wants her to cook him some chicken, not one who wants to talk philosophy. Somehow, Galchen comments on Murakami’s utter masculinity while at the same time respecting it. She carefully skips along the line that separates homage from worship.
Much like Kovalyov’s nose, Galchen’s characters often get away from her. They seem to act without her consent, or even their own. They end up in strange places, leave otherwise happy lives. They interrupt their self-narration with doubt about their own actions (“Or something like that …” “I think, but I’m not sure …”). But that isn’t a fault in her prose. It’s the special nourishment she feeds to the mis-understood.