So Playful, After All: On Rivka Galchen's RAT RULE 79
by Zack Graham
(pictured above: the cover of Rat Rule 79 from Restless Books, which releases on 9/24/19)
Rivka Galchen has never published the same kind of book. She debuted with Atmospheric Disturbances, a dizzying thought-experiment of a novel about the inexactitude of the scientific method, parallel universe theory, lost love, and insanity. Her sophomore effort, American Innovations, happens to be a short story collection about the frenetic inner lives of confused and sad people. Then came Little Labors, a collection of essays on motherhood and femininity, isolation and artistic growth. Rat Rule 79, the writer’s first foray into young adult fiction — out later this month from Restless Books — begins as an adventure story in the vein of James and the Giant Peach or The Phantom Tollbooth, but unfurls into a rumination on consciousness and existence that toys with the conceptual underpinnings of language, teaching and delighting in equal measure.
And yet, the writing in all four of Rivka Galchen’s books is very similar. Her prose bewilders and questions, at once lost, curious, and playful. Her work contains the conceptual density of Borges, the narrative improvisation of Murakami, and the edgy otherworldliness of David Lynch. Fiction or nonfiction, writing for adults or writing for children, writing short tales or spinning book-length fictions — form and genre matter not. Galchen is always in control, always one step ahead, and always in fine form.
Rat Rule 79 is closest to Atmospheric Disturbances from a thematic standpoint. Both books begin at midpoints of confusion and descend into theoretical chaos, but never deteriorate into abstraction; the narratives at hand remain perpetually interesting and entertaining. Both books contain diagrams, maps, graphs, and charts, none of which make a whole lot of sense or help guide the reader in a particularly productive direction. Galchen leans as easily into the whimsicality of children’s fiction in her latest as she retreated from any traceable confines of the modern literary novel in her first; and yet, her novel for adults and her novel for children often strike the same tone.
“It was like when the music comes on at the Chinese restaurant and suddenly even the random movements of the fish in the aquarium seem choreographed, thick with meaning: then the music pauses and meaning abruptly disperses. The fish seem dumb, as do all the diners.”
“… do you know about that kind of quiet that can happen even as a waterfall is rushing, or a wind is blowing? The quiet of sitting in a moving train, say, when you think you can hear your hair growing, or your skin shedding layers?”
Which excerpt comes from which novel? Does our young hero Fred consider aquatic choreography while having General Tso’s chicken? Does our psychiatrist-protagonist Dr. Leo Liebenstein pontificate about how silence strikes the ear?
Such an exercise is exactly the kind of game Galchen would play. She’s so playful, after all. Just when you think you’ve figured out exactly what’s going on with her, something happens that prompts you to realize that nothing is what it seems. Just when you think you’re lost inside of her work, she finds you and guides you in the right direction.
Rat Rule 79 is for children of all ages, shapes, and sizes. All of Galchen’s books are. I implore you to pick one up. You never know what you might find inside.
Zack Graham’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The Believer, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle, and is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.