The Treatment , by Daniel Menaker. Knopf, 269 pages, $23.
Who’d be crazy enough to see a shrink whose name means “earnest morals”?
Fortunately for the readers of The Treatment , Daniel Menaker’s enjoyable if flawed first novel, Jake Singer is, and does. A youngish Jewish teacher at a tony uptown prep school for the “emphatically rich,” Jake suffers from a neurotic anomie best characterized, perhaps, as being Early Philip Roth: stalled career, an Arctic relationship with his widower cardiologist father, a chronic inability to make relationships with Nice Girls stick. To treat his Upper West Side angst, Jake begins analysis with the implacable Dr. Ernesto Morales, a strict Freudian whose heavy black beard and “diabolical smile” give him a decidedly Mephistophelean aspect. To say the least: Morales, a Cuban and devout Catholic, decorates his office with crucifixes, has a keen interest in the stock market and declares to the diffident Jake that “opinions are testicles,” to be offered at one’s own risk. And you thought you had transference issues.
The Treatment is ostensibly about how Morales coaches Jake through reconciliation with his distant father and, more, into a successful relationship with a beautiful young Park Avenue widow, Allegra Marshall, who has some very real problems of her own. (She finds herself in danger of losing her adopted daughter Emily.) But more than anything else, the novel is really about Jake’s relationship with-or, more precisely, his resistance to-Morales. Its best moments lie, indeed, in its dead-on depiction of the loony, slightly paranoid dynamic of the patient-analyst relationship; Mr. Menaker perfectly captures the exquisite frustration that an intelligent, literate person is likely to feel on committing himself to a relationship in which it’s impossible ever to have the upper hand. “‘You have been coming three times a week for how long-two months now?'” Morales superciliously asks Jake during one of their early sessions.
To which Jake replies, “‘Four … But who’s counting.’
“‘We shall get back to your anger in a moment …'”
Exchanges like this will be achingly familiar to anyone who’s lain in a consulting room, silently loathing the standard-issue shrink décor: “the Käthe Kollwitz print … the African mask …”
Because The Treatment is art and not life, the tyrannical Morales can shun the real-life therapist’s mask of non-reactive blankness, revealing his own bullying persona to the cowering yet resentful Jake in scenes that, to the initiate, will be as painful as they are funny. Morales is a kind of Freudian Torquemada: not so much a psychoanalyst as the stern embodiment of pre-Prozac psychoanalysis itself, an impatient, bearded father-figure who has no time for the mewlings of patients who can’t see the Big Picture-who want their insight now, dammit. “You are not Shiva, Mr. Singer, nor Attila nor Hitler, nor even Sharles Starkweather,” Morales snaps at a rebellious Jake. “You are not so lethal as you wish to believe. Now please lie down.”
Delicious as all this is, there are serious problems. Mr. Menaker, who for many years was an editor at the “old” New Yorker and is currently a senior editor at Random House, occasionally commits an authorial gaffe that, in view of his résumé, is odd-the kind of obvious thing editors are always crawling down writers’ throats about. “Our brains seem to require us to try to account for everything, to transmute the brute happenstance of our lives into logical, explanatory narratives,” Jake observes at one point. This English-teacher tendency to articulate the “themes” of the novel may be in character for Jake, but it reads as if Mr. Menaker didn’t trust his story to tell itself.
In a way, you can see why he was nervous. When Jake muses that “[t]here are periods when your life takes on the eerie, overdetermined quality of an analytical session … your life turns into something like fiction,” it’s hard not to be reminded of the eerie, overdetermined quality of much that goes on in The Treatment whenever Jake (and Mr. Menaker) leaves Morales’ office for the real world. The Morales stuff is so true, and so much fun, that the book’s actual plot-a melodrama involving Allegra’s adopted daughter Emily and a plan to get her back, hatched by the mean-spirited, controlling husband of the child’s birth-mother, Sarah-feels like an intrusion.
Similarly, the mad Cuban is so vivid that the other characters seem flat and unpersuasive in comparison-no one more so than the allegedly alluring Allegra herself. Whatever you know about her-she’s beautiful, she’s rich, she’s surprisingly dirty-minded and vulnerable for a Park Avenue shiksa-you know simply because Jake, which is to say Mr. Menaker, tells you. But you have to take it on faith, since the character doesn’t live or breathe on her own.
It’s not that the child-custody subplot is badly written. If anything, the intricate story of Emily’s birth mother, Sarah-a divorced young upstate waitress who meets a great guy named Paul, loses him in a freak accident, gives up their daughter at birth and marries another, not-so-great Paul-has the laconic authority and judiciousness of detail you associate with old New Yorker fiction. (“An old gray Ford Escort was parked close to the door of Jonesy’s sub shop,” the Sarah section begins, with tight-lipped self-assuredness.)
The problem is that the Edward Hopper-like world of Jonesy’s sub shop is light-years away from the Dali-esque landscape inhabited by Morales-despite the author’s efforts to superimpose the one on the other. Yes, you know that Jake’s attempts to save Allegra’s daughter from the machinations of the evil Paul II are meant to serve as a vehicle for showing how he’s matured emotionally, how he’s finally able to commit to Allegra and the scary responsibilities of adulthood (that other “Treatment”); but he-like the book-seems to get a lot more stimulation on Morales’ couch than in Allegra’s bed. Some of the Morales material appeared a while back in The New Yorker , and it’s tempting to think that Mr. Menaker, when he decided to make a book of it, figured he had to “open out” the New-York-Jews-in-therapy-shtick, to make it more novelistic by adding the ostensibly heavier child-custody stuff and taking the action upstate. But for all the laughs it generates, the conflict between Morales and Jake is the real drama here; everything else is just activity.
There’s no denying that The Treatment keeps you delightfully hooked until its satisfyingly undramatic climax, in which bad Paul II doesn’t shoot Jake and doesn’t, in turn, get shotgunned by Sarah during a contrived showdown. But you keep wishing there’d been more shrink.
It’s Morales who haunts the book, much as he haunts, hilariously, Jake’s anxious dreams. (In one of these, the good doctor “lobbied the halls of Congress on behalf of a particular brand of very large Cuban stogie”: In this book, a cigar is never just a cigar.) And it’s Morales, rather than the earnest, troubled Singer Sr. or Sarah or Allegra, who gives the book its philosophical fiber as well as its fun. When the newly self-confident Jake tells Morales he’s leaving analysis, the abandoned doctor-whose ever-worsening material circumstances are due, you can’t help feeling, to the rise of Prozac-delivers himself of a tirade in which he offers his potent … testicles on everything from the end of the Cold War to the evils of psychopharmacology to the dubious legacy of Charles Darwin, “the man who must bear the responsibility for the end of meaning.” Like pretty much everything else Dr. Earnest Morales says, this is not only funny, but very likely true. If Mr. Menaker had been less resistant to Morales than Jake was, less conflicted about the Cuban’s real worth, his novel might have resolved its split-personality problems and evolved into an integrated whole. You don’t have to be Freud to know that a treatment that never gets past its resistance to its own analyst can’t be an unqualified success.