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How do we grow up? In a random universe, where the course of our lives may be dictated less by personal agency than by chance, how do we make peace with the past and gain some measure of control over the future? And what role, if any, can therapy play in such struggles? Daniel Menaker addresses these questions with lively, intelligent wit in his debut novel, The Treatment, which tracks the progress, both on and off the couch, of 32-year-old Jake Singer, a passive, mildly depressed "urban anomic."
Singer is propelled into analysis by the standard contemporary frustrations: professional (he's an English teacher at a prestigious Manhattan prep school, contemptuous of his boss and uncertain about his future); romantic (his girlfriend has abandoned him); familial (he's unconsciously raging at his mother, who died when he was a boy, and at his father, a remote, alienating cardiologist). Leading him through this morass, three mornings a week, is one Dr. Ernesto Morales, a Cuban Catholic whirlwind of an analyst who's either a genius or a madman. Morales ravages Singer's defenses and the English language in equal measure: he calls Singer a "smart alex" and accuses him of acting "the croquette." Like something out of a Woody Allen nightmare, he performs a brand of "emotional vivisection" on Singer that's over-the-top, disparaging, sarcastic -- and oddly effective. Singer, quietly kicking and screaming, is dragged off the gray leatherette couch and into adulthood, a place he has assiduously tried to avoid.
Menaker knows, and elegantly describes, the analytic terrain: the orthodox Freudian's insistence on viewing human drama through an Oedipal lens; the way conflict on the couch mirrors conflict off of it; the quality of overdetermination that life takes on as you dig into the past and present simultaneously. As he racks up the 50-minute hours, Singer begins to internalize his analyst's voice, and Menaker's portrayal of the way Morales nags his way into Singer's consciousness, gradually altering his approach to relationships, is both hilarious and affecting. "Life improved as I went to him," Jake concedes, "but whether if I could do it all over again I would actually choose to have the homunculus of an insane, bodybuilding, black-bearded Cuban Catholic Freudian shouting at me from inside my own head, I am not sure."
Readers looking for psychiatric catharsis -- tears, storms, blinding insights -- will be disappointed; this is a comic novel in Cuban shrink-wrap, an entirely different experience (for both reader and protagonist) from the kind depicted in, say, Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides or Judith Rossner's August. It's also far more ambiguous on the question of treatment and its power to change us. At the outset, Morales promises, "What I shall try to do, if you will permit me, is to help you learn how to obtain from others what it is that you want." As the narrative unfolds, Jake becomes involved with a rich socialite widow named Allegra Marshall; his icy relationship with his father thaws (a process Menaker describes with particular poignancy); he becomes entangled in a conflict involving Allegra's adopted daughter; he changes. Morales' promise -- that his patient will get out of his own way and find personal, professional and sexual fulfillment -- begins to be realized, but whether that's because of the treatment or in spite of it is unclear. In therapy, as in life, growth turns out to be an elusive, mysterious process; in Menaker's hands, it's also a very engaging one. -- Salon