book review

‘American Innovations’ by Rivka Galchen

Andre da Loba for the boston globe

On the day after the couch, the ironing board, the desk lamp, the bath mat, and even the little pink fork make their midnight getaway — climbing out the window, down the fire escape, and into the world, leaving behind a bare apartment — the woman whose things these had been goes for lunch.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” the waitress tells her.

Rivka Galchen’s fiction has that sensation about it: a feeling of shadow existences, of hovering just off to the side of the rooted, solid world, in a space where perceptions are less certain to align.


But in “American Innovations,” her wholly original new collection, Galchen is actively courting the ghosts. Almost all of the book’s 10 stories — each told from a female perspective — are inspired by famous stories written by men.

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Not that this necessarily has to enter into the reader’s experience. These stories stand entirely on their own, and the voice we hear in them is Galchen’s own.

You might read the title story, about a woman who discovers in the mirror one day that she’s grown a breast on her lower back, and never think once of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” Perhaps, a doctor tells the woman, the third breast is a physical manifestation of regret or loss or longing: “There’s no shame in speaking in signs.”

The first piece in the collection, “The Lost Order,” about an out-of-work environmental lawyer who’s become “a daylight ghost,” trapped at home with her self-loathing, probably would not bring James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to mind by itself.

“The daytime hours in this neighborhood belong almost exclusively to deliverymen and nannies,” the lawyer discovers. “I mean, sure, I knew about it vaguely, but there it was — under cover of day, one saw, or at least it seemed as if one saw, that decades of feminism and civil rights advances had never happened. This was appalling.”


And “The Region of Unlikeness” may be a riff on Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” but what it feels most — and most deliciously — like is “Atmospheric Disturbances,” Galchen’s celebrated debut novel from 2008 in which a man is convinced that his beloved wife has been replaced by an imposter. A similarly heightened sense of unreality is at play.

In “The Region of Unlikeness,” a young New Yorker meets a pair of older men in an Upper West Side coffee shop. She and they become inseparable. Then one of the men disappears, leaving no trace. Is he dead, or is he a time traveler? Is the friend left behind his father, or a man unhinged? Are these scenarios mutually exclusive?

“Surely our world obeys rules still alien to our imaginations,” the young woman reasons, and this is the premise on which Galchen’s miniature worlds rest.

Anxiety and isolation pulse through these stories. In “Dean of the Arts,” a molecular biologist travels to Mexico City and masquerades as a magazine journalist.

“I was going through an intense bout of fearfulness that is too irrational and stupid and elusive to explain, and I had done what my husband termed pulling a geographical,” the biologist says. And then, because Galchen’s humor is dry, her antenna for theabsurd acute: “I realize it isn’t common to think of Mexico City as a haven from fear.”


In “Real Estate,” a woman moves into her aunt’s ostensibly empty apartment building to help sell it. “The switch of neighborhoods was somehow reason enough for me to stop seeing any friends,” and soon she’s a bit untethered: hallucinating string cheese, maybe a neighbor, possibly her dead father, unless he’s actually come to visit.

Even the seemingly stable don’t necessarily have a firm grasp. The pregnant novelist at the center of “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire” is caught unawares when her husband leaves her, but her brother and her friend David are less so. Unlike her, they knew about his blog, “I-Can’t-Stand-My-Wife-Dot-Blogspot-Dot-Com.”

But the woman whose belongings shimmy down the fire escape in “Once an Empire” may have the greatest claim to surprise. Off they go, these many things that make up her life, and soon she finds she’s living the wrong one.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at