December 27, 2007

I'm A Freud Not

Last Christmas (and I remember this quite clearly) I was at the airport on my way to Sydney and bought a copy of Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder, fully intending to read it. Instead, it followed me forlornly from continent to continent, always in my to-read pile, but never quite at the top. When I moved to Boston I was convinced Rubenfeld's hour was at hand, but, alas!, school and The New Yorker got in the way, and it wasn't to be. TIoM made one more transoceanic journey with me when I came home last week, and on Christmas Eve, finally, after twelve months and several thousand miles, I started reading it.

And it was awful.

Well, okay, let's be fair. It's not awful if you take it as a piece of junky airport pulp reading (and, honestly, even if that's how I had been coming at it, a year of expectation would probably still have been hard to match) — but it's certainly not packaged as airport junk. It has a tasteful, understated, artistic cover, adorned with rave reviews from every major British paper (saying things like: "spectacular", "vivid", "intelligent", "intriguing", "dazzling", etc.), and a heartily commendatory sticker from Richard and Judy's Book Club (≈Oprah's Book Club, North American readers).

Even the plot synopsis doesn't really seem like your typical pulpy crapfest: a historical novel about Sigmund Freud's only visit to America, in 1909, into which is inserted a murder mystery that Freud's American disciple (and to a lesser extent, Freud himself) is enlisted to help solve.

So what's the problem? Well, first of all (and you'll excuse me if my current studies make me think this is kind of a big deal): the writing. Rubenfeld doesn't really write that beautifully (as the Sunday Telegraph would have you believe); he's a law professor and legal writer, and, well, it shows. The prose lurches from stale to stiff to turgid — and all the wild variation in between! — and does various, fairly confusing things, like switch narrative perspective every two pages. The protagonist, Younger (Freud's American lackey), has a narrative thread all his own in which he speaks in the first person — which would be fine if he didn't also appear regularly in the omniscient third person narrative that tells the rest of the story, or if the two narrators were in any way distinguishable other than Younger occasionally saying "I".

Then there's the plot, which, I will admit, gets pretty tense in the middle third of the book, but is otherwise summarily absurd. There are so many crosses, double crosses, deceptions, hallucinations, and so forth, that by the end of the novel we discover that the murder scene that opens the book wasn't actually a murder, and the murder victim didn't actually exist (I kid you not). In the meantime the whole motive for the actual crime hinges on a bizarre and misogynistic marriage in which husband and wife have never had sex — either because the husband doesn't want to risk the wife getting pregnant and ruining her figure, or because the wife thinks she'll have more control over him this way — and instead have a bedroom life that consists entirely of him tying her up and pretending to force fellatio on her. Again, I kid you not. Apparently Rubenfeld didn't get the memo that it's, um, kind of terrible to depict women as a series of willing orifices for men's unwanted semen.

All of this does, of course, allow Rubenfeld to work in an extraordinary amount of Freudian theory, which I presume is what the reviewers meant when they said that the book works on many levels. That, and Younger's frankly mystifying ruminations on the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet, which make up yet another narrative thread running the length of the book — and which are dull, out of place, and, as an interpretation of Shakespeare, not much to write home about, either. (There's also a tacked on subplot about the neurology-psychology wars in medicine in the early Twentieth Century.) It all comes off as an attempt at intellectual showboating, except that the showboat is a rusty canoe and the intellectual is seriously out of his depth.

When the novel's not busy trying to be clever, it's busy trying to get itself optioned by Paramount. You can almost hear Tom Hanks delivering the protagonist's dialogue, and as a Hollywood thriller this would undoubtedly work better: all the chaff of Freudian and literary theory would be discarded, and the audience would have less to time to think over the details of the mystery and realise, with a jolt, what Detective Jimmy Littlemore does in the final chapter: "That doesn't make sense."

Now, obviously the phrase "that doesn't make sense" is a pretty common gambit in mystery novels (and I won't even begin to comment on the named-for-a-Fifties-public-information-film Detective Jimmy Littlemore, who plays Tweedledee to Younger's Tweedledum). But typically, when a mystery writer resorts to such a gambit, he or she then goes on to have the protagonist explain why, in fact, everything does make sense. Not so with the normally erudite Younger, who responds to Littlemore's statement with a dismissive, "Oh, I don't know." That's a direct quote, and the conversation continues as follows:
"Some people feel a need to bring about the very thing that will most torment them."

"They do?"

"Yes."

"Why?" asked Littlemore.

"I have no idea, Detective. It's an unsolved mystery."
Which I guess Rubenfeld thought might be kind of an unsatisfying ending to a mystery novel, so he tries to distract us with the saccharine conclusion of Littlemore's closing line: "That reminds me, I'm not a detective anymore… The mayor's making me a lieutenant." Hosannah!

But I don't wish to mislead; although that's Littlemore's closing line, the novel doesn't quite end there. We are still forced to submit to the metaphorical fellatio of Rubenfeld taking us through a Dragnet style epilogue (in which each character is given a neat, one-paragraph tying-up-of-loose-ends), and a gleefully gloating Author's Note, in which we are informed that, even if the events and/or characters and/or dialogue in the book seem unbelievable (and he does explicitly mention all three), they are all drawn directly from real life! Don't we feel silly for our skepticism! The problem is, real life doesn't have to work to make us believe it, whereas fiction does — and in between writing his punctiliously researched Freud-Jung interchanges and setting the women's movement back about a hundred years, Rubenfeld has sadly skipped over that all-important element of any good mystery novel: plausibility.

Of course, I suppose this all pointless post facto sniping, because Rubenfeld has made his million already. Dan Brown would be proud; I just want to sob quietly into my unpublished manuscripts.

1 comment:

Mal said...

You could have left Tom Hanks out of this mess. What did he ever to do you?

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