Monday, September 24, 2007

The Interpretation of Murder

Our book today is "The Interpretation of Murder" by Jed Rubenfeld, and it presents us with a puzzle here at Stevereads: we have an abiding weakness for UK paperback editions of books. And not just books we've already read and enjoyed, but ALL books, even those we read and disliked. It's a curious little wrinkle in an otherwise perfect package (for future reference, it was at 'perfect package' that Beepy started paying attention), and we've always wondered if it doesn't have its genesis in the slight hint of PROMISE a foreign edition of any book holds.

After all, isn't the physical makeup of a book part of its allure, even part of the extended process by which we receive it into our minds? Who's to say whether or not - and to what degree - a boring or clumsy design has materially lessened our enjoyment of its contents? Isn't such a thing true in all other areas of aesthetic appreciation? A perfectly condimented Manhattan street cart hotdog (that got us Jeff) surely tastes better if eaten while you're sprawled out on the grass in Central Park than wolfed down in an elevator on the way to a job interview? Surey quick, meaningless sex (that got us Sebastian) is more enjoyable on a blanket deep in the forest (that got us Elmo) than in the cramped public bathroom at a comic book convention (hi Kevin!)?

Surely likewise reading, or at least that's what we've always told ourselves when in the grip of our particular weakness. And "The Interpretation of Murder" is a perfect case in point. We read it before its American publication in 2006 in an galley copy that was both bulky and awkward (it had one of those gatefold covers with an opening in the front flap that's just ideal for snagging on everything in Creation), and we found it bland and uninvolving. As memory serves, we donated it to the nearest teen drug rehab center (that got us Swippey!) and thought no more about it.

Until now, that is. Until we happened upon a UK trade paperback and were moved to buy it and read it again. The UK packaging was in every way superior - a smaller, squatter form, an evocative sepia-tinted cover commanded by the Flatiron Building, cheaper and yet more satisfying paper. And so we were off!

"The Interpretation of Murder" is Rubenfeld's first novel, and it tells a fictionalized version of Sigmund Freud's one and only visit to America, in 1909, to collect an honorary degree from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Something happened on this trip that left Freud with a lifelong aversion to America, and Rubenfeld makes merry use of the fact that no Freud biographer has ever been able to figure out what happened to sour the good doctor's impression.

His explanation involves a few murders, all the various stratum of turn of the century New York, and some intrepid derring-do from a wide cast of characters (including Freud's disciple/colleague Jung, who steals every scene he's in, mainly by being the kind of jerk who could never carry a story on his own). In other words, the pattern here is pretty much identical to Caleb Carr's "The Alienist," only in place of Carr's alienist Lazlo Kreisler, Rubenfeld finds a way to incorporate the real deal, the father of psychotherapy himself. The real-life Freud was at least as interesting as any of his fictional representations (up to and including Alan Arkin's virtuoso performance in "The Seven Percent Solution"), so Rubenfeld would seem to have come up with an ingenious gambit.

It didn't please us much in 2006, but here in 2007, in this UK edition, it won us over. As did the technique, also on evidence in 'The Alienist,' of grounding the story in a likeable third party, in this case Freud's American colleague and devotee Stratham Younger, who gets to give us many of our first impressions as the story unfolds.

A great many of those impressions impressed us much more this time around than they did when the book's cover was catching on every random corner and tearing just that much more.

For instance, the first time Freud encounters an American subway system (and not just any subway but a Manhattan one):

"As we descended the stair to the IRT, Freud's mood darkened. 'He is terrified of your underground trains,' Ferenczi whispered in my ear. 'A bit of unanalyzed neurosis. He told me so last night.'
Freud's humor did not improve when our train lurched to a violent halt in a tunnel between stations, its lights flickering out, plunging us into a pitch, hot darkness. 'Buildings in the sky, trains in the earth,' said Freud, sounding irritated. 'It is Virgil with you Americans: if you cannot bring the heavens down, you are determined to raise hell.'
'That is YOUR epigraph, no?' asked Ferenczi.
'Yes, but it was not supposed to be my EPITAPH,' answered Freud."

There's a good ear behind such dialogue, not only Ferenczi's subtle pride at his privileged status as a confessor to the great man, but also in the portrayal of the great man himself, intellectually clever even in the grip of a personal fear.

Naturally, when trotting out a character like Freud, any writer worth his salt will feel the urge to write a showpiece of psychological deduction now and then - what would a Sherlock Holmes story be, after all, if he didn't periodically astonish poor hapless Watson with feats of seeming mental prestidigitation?

Rubenfeld produces a delectable example of this sort of thing, when a society matron puts Freud on the spot at a lavish dinner party by asking him "Can you psychoanalyze anyone, Dr. Frued?"

"What women want," Freud replied to her question, as the guests took their seats at a table shimmering with crystal, "is a mystery, as much to the analyst as to the poet. If only you could tell us, Mrs. Branwell, but you cannot. You are the problem, but you are no better able to solve it than are we poor men. Now, what MEN want is almost always apparent. Our host, for example, instead of his spoon, has picked up his knife by mistake.
All heads turned to the smiling, bulky form of of Jelliffe at the head o the table. It was so: he had his knife -- not his breadknife but his dinner knife - in his right hand. 'What does that signify, Dr. Freud?' asked an elderly lady.
'It signifies that Mrs. Banwell has aroused our host's aggressive impulses,' said Freud. 'This aggression, arising from circumstances of sexual competition readily comprehensible to everyone, led his hand to the wrong instrument, revealing wishes of which he himself was unconscious."
There was a murmur around the table."

All that's missing is a hearty 'Good Heavens, Holmes!'

And what would a smart, able historical novel be without at least one knowing wink at the future? The great Mary Renault has a scene in which an actor in ancient Athens experiences a fever-dream in which he's acting in 'Hamlet,' and likewise Rubenfeld has his fun, in this case with a pet theory long held by his narrator, that all the revolutionary developements of any century happen in its first few years. The character's father - an altogether appealing character, although you get the impression this would come as a shock to Rubenfeld - discounts the idea, but our narrator won't let go:

"But my enthusiasm was vindicated. In 1905, an unknown Swiss patent agent of German-Jewish extraction produced a theory he called relativity. Within twelve months, my professors at Harvard were saying that this Einstein had changed our ideas of space and time forever. In art, I concede, nothing happened. In 1903, a crowd at St. Botolph's made a great fuss over a Frenchman's water lilies, but these proved to be the work of an artist who was merely losing his eyesight."

Haw. Didn't Billy Zane say something like that in TITANIC?

In any case, what we have here, obviously and despite our first impressions, is a pretty good novel, far better than it we thought it was in its American manifestation.

Nay, more than that! The book, the book itself, its interior, its words and ideas, is better in the UK version than in the American. The book itself changed, and changed for the better.

Impossible, you say? Well, let us ask you this: which is less likely, that a book could change its contents and essence from the American edition to the UK edition, or that we here at Stevereads could have been WRONG back in 2006?

We thought so. That'll be enough of that now.


Beepy said...

Sometimes a fear of an underground train is just a fear of an underground train?

Beepy said...

I agree with you completely that the cover is oh-so-important to the reading experience. Sometimes it is all that matters. I never would have made it through "Master and Commander" if it had been the stupid American movie cover version. But Steve found me a lovely British mass market that I was proud to read. Yet another reason that Steve and I are almost the same person.

Gianni said...

Steve knows he doesn't have to situation-drop to get me into his blogs...

An interesting book, and an interesting theory about the difference between US and British paperbacks. I would say that the same difference are inherent between US hardcovers and US paperbacks, sometimes what is insufferable to read in hardcover becomes that much easier to read in it's smaller, paperback form.

Sam said...

I cover all my books in protective wrappers cut from brown paper bags, so that the Man won't ever know what I'm reading

Kevin Caron said...

I do that too. So I can draw dirty pictures all over my books.