When you think about Sigmund Freud, do you think of cigars? Cocaine? Coney Island? The Viennese psychoanalyst arrived in New York in 1909 to deliver a series of lectures at Clark University in Massachusetts, but surprisingly little is known about his stay in the city except that he went to Coney Island. Freud’s only visit to America is the jumping off point for a pair of fictional investigations into what makes us tick and, in the case of Jed Rubenfeld’s historical thriller The Interpretation of Murder, stop ticking.
There’s a sadist running around the streets of Rubenfeld’s Manhattan who gets his jollies by tying up rich young heiresses and whipping them into submission. Just another night on the town for Paris Hilton, but 100 years ago it was the stuff of scandal, particularly when the girls wound up dead. The baffled police force gets its first break in the case when beautiful Nora Acton survives a similar attack, but the shock of the assault has left the 17-year-old unable—or unwilling—to speak. To quote Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s roiling book of the unconscious, it would appear the predator prefers his girls “yung and easily freudened.”
Enter Dr. Stratham Younger, a well-heeled disciple of psychoanalysis who is dispatched from Clark to ensure the good doctor’s visit is an agreeable one. Younger hears about Acton’s case at a cocktail party and offers his mentor’s assistance. Freud agrees to oversee Younger’s analysis and the chase is on. Younger probes Nora with mixed results: While he is unable to penetrate Nora’s amnesia, he learns just enough to commit the cardinal sin of therapy and fall in love with his patient.
Freud’s off-the-cuff analyses of Younger and Acton provide the novel with some of its most entertaining passages, but readers anticipating Freud as a 20th-century Sherlock Holmes, puffing on a stogie while he uses mind games and dream analysis to solve crimes, will be disappointed. As the mystery deepens, much of the novel’s actual crime solving is left to a likable detective named Littlemore, giving Freud very little to do but hang out in his hotel room where he is tormented by his rival and protégé, Carl Jung, whose erratic behavior comes off like that of an affluent European tourist on an absinthe binge.
Rubenfeld’s rendering of early-20th-century Manhattan is engrossing, and the pacing allows Younger to wax didactic on the news of the day. There’s also a fair bit of speculation about the meaning of Hamlet, which the protagonist “solves,” albeit unconvincingly.
While Rubenfeld’s historical novel dutifully chases down the minutiae of Freud’s time in New York, Norman M. Klein’s counterfactual investigation leaves you wondering if Freud was ever here at all. A visit to Coney Island is too tantalizing a prospect for Klein, an urban historian and cultural critic, to gloss over, and Freud in Coney Island and Other Tales doesn’t disappoint. He gleefully shunts his protagonist through the 10-cent terrors of Hell Gate, the Crack of Dawn, and Creation, which Freud enters by passing beneath an enormous vagina. Whether it’s the bad food, the stress of travel, or his strained relations with Jung, Coney Island is where things get to be too much for the Sigster and he succumbs to his not-so-repressed instincts with a woman named Frida, the former patient of a colleague.
The narrator’s source for this salacious scoop is a trove of Freud’s travel journals that turned up in a handmade typewriter case in England in 1995. The nine folios that make up the Freud Ephemera are a record of the doctor’s own neuroses, “a psychiatric form of double bookkeeping.” The details of Freud’s imbroglio with Frida are hinted at and danced around, but never directly confronted. It is clear from almost the very beginning (despite his protestation to the contrary) that the narrator is the great-grandson of the man who may or may not have been cuckolded by Freud, and that this grandson is none other than Norman Klein.
Part fabrication, part case history, and part pseudo-science, Klein’s “collection” touches on a staggering array of topics, from gentrification to nanoscopics to the future of forgetting. While much of the book has the whiff of a Victorian hoax, Klein’s mournful rumination on his mother’s battle with cancer makes it clear that his subject is nothing less than the malaise of being alive and unwell in America.