“When I was 25 years old, I looked at my bookshelf and it was all men,” says Rivka Galchen. “All of my favorite books were by men and had male narrators.”
Galchen, author of the novel “Atmospheric Disturbances,” is now 38 and speaking by phone from New York. It’s the eve of the publication of her first collection of short fiction, “American Innovations” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 192 pp., $25), a book that inverts the gender equation of her old bookshelf.
The stories all have female narrators, and all (save one) are inspired by iconic short stories written by men. Galchen’s stories are witty and delightfully intelligent, riffing on works by David Foster Wallace, James Joyce and Haruki Murakami. Each illustrates how the presence of women, as authors and narrators, might have inflected canonical stories.
The title story remakes Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” — it has a different setting, a different plot, and instead of a nose, the body part in question is an inexplicable third breast. Galchen’s overtly sexualized version makes the Freud-style point that sometimes a nose is not just a nose.
Galchen says a joke was the key to the collection. “Whenever I would be disappointed in the quality of my inner life, I would say to myself, ‘It’s the secret life of Willa Mitty,’” she explains, alluding to the story by James Thurber. “I did always think I would really love to do the Walter Mitty story and see why it wouldn’t work in the same way if the main character were a woman.” The result is the book’s opener, “The Lost Order.”
The project as a whole is a lot like Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” the 1993 record that was a woman’s song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones’ album “Exile on Main Street.” Phair was blazing a loud path into the male-dominated rock canon; literature, Galchen’s field, is less macho but no less male — especially when it comes to heady, challenging fiction.
“I’d been really in love with that story ‘The Aleph’ by [Jorge Luis] Borges,” she says. “In ‘The Aleph,’ the woman is dead and she never gets to speak, even though she’s the object around which everything rotates. I didn’t consciously want to turn it, but unconsciously it really mattered to me.”
Galchen’s re-imagining of Borges, “The Region of Unlikeliness,” is told from the point of view of a woman — not exactly from “The Aleph” but similar. She is “in a masculine setting, in a masculine genre, science fiction” and confronts the Grandfather Paradox, a time travel puzzle. “Of course things don’t work out the same,” Galchen says.
Based in Manhattan, where she lives with her partner and their 8-month-old child, Galchen teaches MFA students at Columbia. But she almost had a very different job: She was supposed to become a doctor.
Galchen was born in Canada to academics who emigrated from Israel. By the time she entered elementary school, her family had settled in Oklahoma. In some ways her childhood was isolating — her parents spoke Hebrew at home and hers was the only Jewish family — but it wasn’t unhappy. And like many children of immigrants, she had a clear professional path ahead.
“I’m super risk-averse, and I really like to be obedient,” she says, explaining why she enrolled in medical school. “It’s not something I’m proud of. I think I managed to stay unhappy for all of my medical education. That unhappiness was motivating. I felt like I was so young and so bitter!” she says with a laugh.
What she really wanted to do was write. After getting an MD, she pursued an MFA at Columbia. “I felt like, I’m still inside an institution, and it made me feel like I wasn’t being irresponsible,” she says. “I had a deadline in my head: If after two years I don’t have something, I’ll go back. Though of course I didn’t want to go back.”
Her literary hopes were made manifest in 2008 with the novel “Atmospheric Disturbances,” which critics compared to Jonathan Lethem, Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon.
“Rivka’s stories can be challenging, because she doesn’t pander to the reader: So much of it is about voice, and there’s often a learning curve as you become attuned to the voice of a particular story,” says Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of the New Yorker, which has published four stories in the collection. “There’s a real technical cleverness to what she does; she’s also very funny, an acute observer of social ridiculousness, which makes the small flares of emotion all the more devastating.”
That literary wit and incisiveness is accompanied by something else: a genuine admiration for the original work, despite the implicit feminist critique.
“If you’re a book lover, you always want to replenish books, and add to the books you love....,” she says. “I think when you re-dream something you give a little bit of life back to the thing that made you dream.”
[For the record 1:33 p.m. PDT May 1: An earlier version of this post reported that Galchen’s child was 8 years old. The child is 8 months old.]