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Rivka Galchen’s Short Stories Transport Readers Into Magical Worlds

● American Innovations
By Rivka Galchen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages, $24

The stories in Rivka Galchen’s “American Innovations,” aren’t all fantastical — although a fair number include elements of magic realism and science fiction — but even the most realistic stories in this collection have a kind of magical quality about them that transports the reader into a world that feels at once real and surreal.

In “Real Estate,” the narrator moves into a haunted building where she meets a man, or imagines she meets a man, Eddy, who she will never see again. Opening her fridge, she finds not the Armenian string cheese she thought she had purchased too much of, but the apples she thought she had “only contemplated buying.” At a nearby gyro place she encounters a man who reminds her of her dead father, and whom she begins to refer to as “my dad.” She wonders: “Had I slipped through a wormhole of time?”

Galchen gives phantom and reality equal space in her stories, as if to underscore the fact that for her characters, the distinction between these two spheres is less important than the recognition that the imaginary and the actual are both a part of the experience of life. In the title story, the protagonist wakes one morning to find herself newly endowed with a third breast on her lower back. She consults a doctor, who asks a series of personal questions about the patient’s family life and emotional well-being, because, as she says, “It’s very common to manifest these things in our body… Your body speaks a language. It’s like a foreign language we all speak but have forgotten how to understand.”

Some of Galchen’s stories contain autobiographical elements, most notably “Wild Berry Blue,” in which the narrator belongs to the only Jewish family in their Oklahoma town. Galchen, the Canadian-born daughter of Israeli expats, spent most of her childhood in Norman, Oklahoma. The story beautifully captures a very young girl’s sensation of being in love. As she counts the days until she will next see the man who has captured her heart, she feels the meaninglessness of everything else in her life — from long division to “the corrugated cardboard trim on school bulletin boards,” to her own dawdling. It all seems suddenly so superfluous, so “supremely childish and vain.” She waits, impatiently: “One day, I think it will be Saturday again. But time seemed to move so slowly. I’d lost my appetite for certain details of life.”

The details can be inconvenient, as many of the stories included here go on to point out. Take, for example, our notions of time, and of the dividing line between the living and the dead. As B, the main character in a story called “The Late Novels of Gene Hackman” notes, we suffer from the “chronic incorrectness of thinking that one lived in only one particular moment at a time, instead of in a smudge, a smear, where we were all already dead even as we were still breathing.” In Galchen’s work death is everywhere, not as a horrible, tragic reality, but simply a part of life itself.

The collection’s closing and, arguably, strongest story, “Once an Empire,” concerns a woman who looks on as her furniture — everything from a favorite childhood spoon to her velveteen recliner — makes a sudden escape, leaving her apartment empty and her witness to an inexplicable crime. As she watches her wooden ironing board dislodge itself she is overcome with emotion:

I would never have said I cared for it. But when I saw it there on the fire escape, out of its context, a great tenderness unearthed itself, flowing from me to it. The ironing board’s gangly back legs hooked over the fire escape’s final edge; its front legs made gentle, almost elastic contact with the sidewalk below. Having landed confident as a cat burglar, the board then continued east. Its progress wasn’t awkward or zombielike. It moved supplely, playfully. Kind of like a manatee.

In the aftermath of the incident, the character frequents antique markets in the hopes of one day finding her runaway belongings. As she rummages through the items for sale she feels like she is “thumbing through all the lives I wasn’t leading but might have led,” imagining “all the people these objects had owned.” There is something tantalizingly beautiful about Galchen’s evocation of lived experience and entire lives, really, through physical things that are, of themselves, utterly mundane and inconsequential.

Reading these stories, one experiences a kind of slippage into an otherworldly space — where people travel through time and encounter the dead and watch their belongings un-belong themselves. It’s the kind of space that great literature makes possible by creating — through this kind of intensely real imagery and dialogue — a world unto itself.

Shoshana Olidort’s work has also appeared in The New Republic and the Chicago Tribune.

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