Imagine that

Jean Kazez sees women on the dopplerganger radar, in her regular arts column

Jean Kazez

Jean Kazez

With women now responsible for more terrorist acts and a clearly unqualified woman nearly capturing the US vice-presidency, forays into male preserves are not always worth cheering. It seemed like good news, though, when Liesl Schillinger recently heralded Rivka Galchen’s novel Atmospheric Disturbances as a gender-bender on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Such philosophical fiction, coming from a woman, is “extremely rare”, she claims.

I was just about to clap my hands for Galchen when it occurred to me to wonder – what was Schillinger talking about? Many philosophers are women; many novelists are women. Is it really true that women haven’t been writing brainy philosophical novels until now?

I did sort of think Schillinger had stacked the deck. She made a point of saying that a philosophical first novel by a woman is a rarity, as if to forestall mention of second and third novels. Why not point out the rarity of philosophical novels by residents of Oklahoma or people with the initials “RG”? But there was no altering the challenge. I began to wrack my brains for philosophical first novels written by women.

Meanwhile I began Galchen’s book, which proved to be chock full of philosophy phrases and words. There is talk of possible worlds and epistemology, personal identity, and (especially) doppelgangers. The premise of the book is introduced in the very funny and strange first 25 pages. Psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein wakes up one day and notices his wife Rema has been replaced by a simulacrum. He senses a connection to trouble he’s been having with Harvey, a patient who believes he is an agent of the Royal Meteorological Society, with the power to control the weather.

Harvey had been in the habit of wandering off on wayward meteorological missions, until Rema came up with a solution. Leo would pose as another agent, with instructions for Harvey from the head of the society, a Dr. Tzvi Gal-chen. For a while the strategy had stopped Harvey’s wanderings.

But then Harvey disappears and the doppelganger appears in Rema’s place. Leo suspects Gal-chen, the enigmatic but brilliant weather-maven, will help him find the real Rema. After all, he is an expert on Doppler radar (are you following this?). Soon Leo travels to Buenos Aries and Patagonia, and dogs start to be central to the plot, as well as many cups of coffee and plates of cookies … and the whole thing starts to be by turns wildly entertaining and tedious.

When the cookies, dogs, and discussions of Doppler radar got to be too much, I returned to my own mission. I quickly scanned the horizon for female philosophical novelists and only came up with female philosophers, like Philippa Foot, Judith Thomson, and Julia Annas. It seemed promising that Martha Nussbaum writes about philosophy and literature and uses literary elements in her writing, but she’s never written a novel.

The mission was not going well when one day while folding the laundry I had an epiphany (in fact, a multiple-epiphany). Of course! Simone de Beauvoir was both a philosopher and a novelist. Iris Murdoch was too. And Susan Sontag was at least a philosophical writer, as well as a novelist. Now I just needed to see if they had written philosophical first novels.

At the book store I discovered that Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, is jam-packed with philosophy talk. “Some parts of London are necessary, others are contingent,” begins a chapter. This is a sentence that only philosophers can love as much as it deserves to be loved.

Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel was She Came to Stay, an exploration of a ménage a trios; hopefully it wouldn’t be cheating to call it a study of sexual ethics. Her later novel All Men are Mortal fits the description “philosophical novel” to a “t”, with its immortal protagonist and lessons about the meaning of life.

At this point, I felt victorious, but started to worry that I was reaching back pretty far. Then it came to me: The Mind-Body Problem was published to wide acclaim in 1983. Rebecca Goldstein’s protagonist has a head full of philosophy: she worries about mind and body, “mattering maps”, mathematical truth, aesthetics. Not only did Goldstein write a philosophical (and very enjoyable) first novel – and then other works of philosophical fiction and non-fiction – but I couldn’t help noticing she’s another “RG”.

No doubt the urge to see Goldstein as a doppelganger was the effect of reading Atmospheric Disturbances. Leo continues to look for Rema, ponder the meteorological theories of Tzvi Gal-chen, encounter dogs and eat cookies … and then he and we begin wondering how a person knows the difference between reality and psychotic delusion.

A breakthrough for women, no, but Atmospheric Disturbances is a unique cerebral entertainment. By the time you get to the end you may not find the story wholly believable, but the welter of strange detail, the peculiar tone, the meteorological poetry, and the evocation of love and loss will stay with you for a long time.

Jean Kazez is the author of The Weight of Things: Philosophy and the Good Life (Blackwell). She teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

  1. I agree with your first thoughts Jean: women may have been at least as important as men in the development of the novel and those pioneers were up to their necks in philosophy. Not self-conscious poseurs (by which I mean almost all contemporary ‘serious’ novelists) but real, sharp philosophy.

    George Eliot was very erudite but the master was Austen–and we are still grappling with her.

  2. May I put my two cents (bad pun) in:
    Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood.

  3. Oh yes, how’s about Ayn Rand?

  4. I think my next column is going to be about Margaret Atwood’s new novel “The Year of the Flood.” Lots of good philosophical themes there, and it’s gripping too!

Leave a Reply