Review: American Innovations

Short and a very great deal more than sweet

By Madeleine Kingsley, July 10, 2014
Galchen: a true original

Galchen: a true original

By Rivka Galchen
4th Estate, £14.99

This collection of short stories will shake your expectations of the little-gem fictional form. The American Innovations of Rivka Galchen, Oklahoma-raised daughter of Israeli immigrants, are as original, particular and digressive as her provenance. They deliver a delicious blend of desolation and deadpan, laugh-aloud drollery. "I'm wronging a hungry man" frets the out-of-work wife in The Lost Order, more concerned with the misdialling caller demanding delivery of his Chinese take-away than with finding a lost wedding ring.

These tales leave you with a light touch of some reality you half-know but prefer to forget. Once an Empire reminds you, for instance, that you could, in extremis, drop out of adulthood for a while to go home and have Mum put your hair in braids. The title story suggests that, if your body lets you down in some "anatomically anomalous" way (her librarian protagonist has grown a supernumerary dorsal breast) the problem is at least partly solved by shopping for a shift dress.

Other stories spook the reader with post-modern ghostliness - a thirtysomething woman in Once an Empire looks on helplessly as her house contents stage a collective walk-out, right down to her rickety old ironing board and souvenir Colorado Rockies fork. The Region of Unlikeliness riffs on the time-travel "Grandfather Paradox", inviting you to wonder if one of the two philosopher boys with whom the heroine hangs out is actually the other's son visiting from the future.

This story also seems a homage to Jules et Jim, and that's another hallmark Galchen lit-trick - amusing, passing tributes to other writers, including Gogol, Borges, James Thurber, Ralph Ellison even to actor Gene Hackman's thriller novels. Physics and natural phenomena are also en passant in a mix that testifies to an impressive intellectual range.

Besides qualifying as a psychiatrist Galchen has produced a debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances (about a psychiatrist who believes a doppel-ganger has replaced his much-younger wife) that has elevated her to the New Yorker list of top American authors under 40.

From a Jewish perspective, American Innovations resonates warmly with its recurring preoccupation with food, possessions and the parent-daughter relationship. Sticker Shock presents the shifting affections of a mother and daughter in the bald and brutally comic arithmetic of their gross income, mutual investments and assets. Wild Berry Blue - my personal favourite and possibly autobiographical - is a nine-year-old's first love story, set mainly in McDonalds. The woman who was once that child, observes: "All my life, love has felt like a croquet mallet to the head. Something absurd, ready for violence."

Madeleiene Kingsley is a freelance writer

Last updated: 2:45pm, July 10 2014