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A review of a novel featuring Sigmund Freud seems as good a place as any for true confessions, so allow me two. First, we included an excellent essay by Yale law professor, Jed Rubenfeld, in our book, Redefining Sovereignty, so this novel would have to be horrid for me to hammer it. Fortunately, it is instead an enjoyable murder mystery in the vein of Caleb Carr's The Alienist, but with the good Doctor taking the cameo role that Teddy Roosevelt had in that earlier thriller.

Mr. Rubenfeld takes as his starting point a genuine 1909 trip to New York--Freud's only visit to America--on his way to accept an honorary degree at Clark University in Massachusetts. While not much is known about this episode, Freud was apparently left with a terror of America such that he claimed it caused a variety of neuroses. In the novel, Freud and his European disciples Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi are joined by the American Abraham Brill and the fictional Stratham Younger. The group is called in to consult on a sadistic murder at the ritzy new Balmoral apartment building. Freud suggests that Younger assist the police, including the odd New York City Coroner Charles Hugel and an honest detective, Jimmy Livermore.

Mr. Rubenfeld draws upon copious research for a detailed portrait of turn of the century New York City, such that the reader can visualize it easily. He combines that with a suitably grisly murderer, a thorough command of Freudianism and even some innovative, if dubious, speculation about Shakespeare's Hamlet to render a consistently absorbing mystery. As is not uncommon for a first time novelist, he packs his book overfull with subplots, secondary characters, and dangling themes--after all, who knows if you'll ever get to mention them in a second book? Similarly, the narrative is somewhat disjointed because Younger speaks in the first-person, but the investigation is begun by Hugel and taken over by Livermore, while various other scenes occur with none of those three present. These are problems that an editor would have dealt with in the old days, but when a publisher buys a manuscript for big bucks and builds a $500,000 advertising campaign around its release, they apparently forsake any right to suggest changes to the text. It wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the sure-to-follow film version cleans up some of these design flaws.

Which brings up to my second confession: I have to admit that Freud and his followers are such obvious lunatics themselves--just big bags full of neuroses and psychoses--and the analyses that they offer throughout the book are so manifestly extensions of their own disturbed personalities, rather than insights into others or into some general wisdom about mankind, that I sort of thought Mr. Rubenfeld was spoofin' on Freudisnism. But then I read that he'd written his undergraduate dissertation on Freud and studied Shakespeare in graduate school and none of the reviews I've read mention that Freud and company are played for laughs. So, I fear he may take some of this psychoanalytic eyewash seriously, even here in the early 21st century, when all three of the isms (Marxism, Freudianism & Darwinism) lie in tatters. Ah well, until I hear definitively otherwise, I'm going to assume that the comic effect is intentional. It does add immeasurably to what is already a fine first novel.


Grade: (B-)


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