The idea of casting Sigmund Freud as the sleuth in a murder story, or at any rate as a walk-on sleuthing consultant, has an “overdetermined” quality, as Freud himself might put it. Like a detective, a psychoanalyst excels at finding the thread of significance that lurks within a jumbled skein of reported events. Both figures dedicate themselves to teasing out truths that others seek to hide. And for both, the saga of Oedipus serves as a model for the unraveling of life’s most profound mysteries. Rubenfeld wrests this analogy from its inert obviousness and yokes it to a real historical puzzle: Why did Freud, following his lone visit to the United States, develop a lifelong antipathy to that country—an antipathy so extreme that he once labeled the American experiment in civilization “a great mistake”? The fictional answer, Rubenfeld suggests, is that during his 1909 excursion to the New World the good Dr. Freud witnessed goings-on that would make even the most jaded Old World gentleman cough up his cigar in amazed revulsion.
In that year, Freud traveled to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, to deliver a series of lectures; on his way to New England, he stayed for a week in New York, accompanied by an entourage that included Carl Jung. On the basis of those historical facts, the author erects a complex and adroitly managed plot that hinges on transporting Freud’s famous “Dora” case from fin-de-siècle Vienna to ragtime Manhattan. That case involved a dark love quadrangle in which, behind a façade of bourgeois probity, a man prostituted his daughter (“Dora”) to another man in exchange for conjugal rights to the latter man’s wife. Here, Dora assumes the form of one Nora Acton, a nubile “new woman” who lives with her family in a Gramercy Park townhouse. After a strange incident in which Nora reports molestation as well as memory loss, a young psychiatrist named Chatham Younger subjects her to a course of Freud’s newfangled talk therapy. Younger, an authorial creation who narrates bits and pieces of the novel, conducts his psychoanalytic investigation under Freud’s supervision. Alas, he fares about as well with Nora as Freud did with Dora—that is, not very well at all. Proper sleuthing work remains the province of Jimmy Littlemore, a police detective whose blandly stolid heroism adds (um) “little more” to Rubenfeld’s teeming cast of characters.
Younger, for his part, has much better luck with efforts to interpret the mysteries of Hamlet (What did the melancholy Dane really mean when he asked his “To be or not to be” question?) and of the Oedipus complex (Do children truly harbor feelings of homicidal jealousy toward their parents?). Those moments are among the choicest slices of Rubenfeld’s dense literary layer cake. Also worthy of praise are a series of ably evoked period locations, ranging from the exalted heights of a luxury apartment house (based on the fabled Ansonia, on the Upper West Side) all the way down to the pressurized depths of an underwater “caisson,” used in the construction of the Manhattan Bridge. Down there, as in the airless bottom of the human unconscious, a man might lose not only his breath but also his very self.