Sunday 24 March 2013

Freud in NYC

The other weekend I went on a charity shop splurge, the results of which were 2 lovely new dresses, 5 new books and an assuaged conscience. I didn’t need the clothes, but they did make me feel good; and after the suitcase full I donated a week later to the same charity shop, I felt better about making space for the “newbies” in my wardrobe.

Now the 5 books are sitting on my shelf, treats waiting to be enjoyed. Amongst them I picked up a Patrick Gail, an author I’ve really enjoyed before, and at last my own copy of Great House, which I so adored a few years ago (Durham library’s copy). And then something I’ve had my eye on for a while (and which the lovely volunteer at BHF said was great!): The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld.

I'd heard of this book, but I don't think I'd read a review, otherwise maybe my expectations would have been lowered. But I speak to soon. Let's start with a bit of an intro and then my own thoughts...
Turn of the century New York, a dramatic murder, and Freud & Jung et al. arrive from Europe. The author makes a lot of effort to describe New York in this period – the construction of buildings, the corruption of officials, the hotels, the bridge:

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, an architectural paroxysm shook New York City. Gigantic towers called skyscrapers soared up one after the other, higher than anything built by the hand of man before. At a ribbon-cutting on Liberty Street in 1908, the top hats applauded as Mayor McClellan declared the forty-seven-story redbrick and bluestone Singer Building the world’ tallest structure. Eighteen months later, the mayor had to repeat the same ceremony at the fifty-story Metropolitan Life tower on Twenty-fourth Street. But even then, they were already breaking ground for Mr Woolworth’s staggering fifty-eight story ziggurat back downtown.

On every block, enormous steel-beam skeletons appeared where empty lots had been the day before. The smash and scream of steam shovels never ceased. The only comparison was with Haussmann’s transformation of Paris a half century earlier, but in New York there was no single vision behind the scenes, no unifying plan, no disciplining authority. Capital and speculation drove everything, releasing fantastic energies, distinctly American and individualistic.

The masculinity of it all was undeniable.” (pg. 7)

The fantastical plot explodes in a whirl of sexuality, Oedipal complexes, and dead bodies, all in the setting of an opulent hotel. There is also a rather strange fascination with Hamlet. Oh, and I almost forgot the plethora of pretty women.

The quotation above links nicely into the focus on Freud. The book makes a lot out of the group dynamics of the Freud/Jung party. Our protagonist is a devotee of Freud and a young , privileged psychoanalyst himself, who gets increasingly attached to one of the young heroines.

I don’t want to give too much away because as a thriller this book is intensely plot driven. I was however expecting something different. And I’m not quite sure what led me to think this. On reflection, it may have been the rather excellent first page, which set up a moral question which didn’t seem to be considered much later:

“There is no mystery to happiness.
Unhappy men are all unlike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn – or worse, indifference – cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn’t look ahead. He lives in the present.
But there’s the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning – the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life – a man must reinhabit his past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them.” (pg. 5)

I really enjoyed the first chapter, and was expecting more of the same in the rest, including a clever treatment of Freud in America, and perhaps some deprecation of the American obsession with psychoanalysis. This wasn’t forthcoming, much to my disappointment. To my mind the book veers between trashy and wannabe literary fiction – not least because of this very focus on Freud, and the all-consuming thriller plot. For some reason the author felt the need to include far too many strands/themes and they just don’t quite sit together right. Personally, I found the treatment of Freud and Jung ridiculously cliché and skewed somewhat by the epilogue in which the author details all of the factual inaccuracies. After reading through those, I really wondered why he had written the book at all. It would have been more successful running along the lines of Hallucinating Foucault...

Overall verdict: a thrilling page-turner that doesn’t live up to its high intentions. Probably a good holiday read though!

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