The Treatment

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Life’s “imponderables” and “brute circumstances” are among key words and phrases Jake Singer, novelist Daniel Menaker’s maturing hero, applies to the lessons life (and his therapist) have taught him.

Menaker picks up Jake’s story in the 1970’s. At thirty-two, still burdened by the early loss of his mother and lately estranged from his cardiologist father and one girlfriend after another, the hero regards himself as trapped in mediocrity and futility. For four years he has been a deceptively reluctant client at the mercy of Dr. Ernesto Morales—bearded, Cuban, and cunning—whose prurient interrogations are usually on the mark. Jake’s every move and mood must be monitored by Morales.

When Jake strikes up a tryst with a wealthy widow named Allegra, Dr. Morales becomes intrusive to a fault. A complicated subplot rings in Sarah Gibson, a star-crossed woman from the Berkshires—a character whose main function is to be the unwed mother of an infant named Emily whom the widowed Allegra has adopted. In his zeal to demonstrate Jake’s often brilliantly expressed sense that in life the unexpected stifles the rational, Menaker relies on dubious ploys. Sarah marries a possessive young lawyer who convinces her she must reclaim Emily. Jake and Allegra unite in frustrating the once-again betrayed Sarah’s half-hearted bid. A retrospective finale reveals happy endings for all but the lawyer whose settlement frees Sarah.

That THE TREATMENT does not sink is due to the wondrous Morales, D.M. (doctor of malapropisms). His presence, whether jousting couchside or in his patient’s fevered mind, assures pleasurable reading.

Sources for Further Study

American Journal of Psychiatry. CLV, December, 1998, p. 1791.

Booklist. XCIV, May 15, 1998, p. 1596.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 115.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 31, 1998, p. 2.

The New Leader. LXXXI, June 29, 1998, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 7, 1998, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, June 1, 1998, p. 41.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 28, 1998, p. 23.

The Wall Street Journal. June 1, 1998, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, September 27, 1998, p. 6.

The Treatment

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Treatment is Daniel Menaker’s first novel, but he is no rookie. The author of two critically well-received short-story collections and for five years a senior editor at Random House after twenty-five years under three editors at The New Yorker, the fifty-seven-year-old Menaker, like E. L. Doctorow, may be out of sequence as a novelist, but he is never out of synch. In fact, The Treatment is so deftly crafted thematically as to risk undermining its characters, with one notable and saving exception.

Life’s “imponderables” and “brute circumstances” are among the key words and phrases Jake Singer, Menaker’s maturing hero, applies to the less-than- anguishing lessons life (and his therapist) have taught him. Sooner or later, experience shatters any presupposition that existence conforms to rational principles. Everyone’s end comes suddenly, but it is the unexpected in living—the snipping of even well-sewn threads—that, as Jake puts it seven years after the book’s main action, places him—and everyone—“at the mercy of something, even if that something is nothing but luck.”

This notion of a determined fortuity was more fashionable in the existentialist weariness of the 1950’s than at the end of the century. Menaker’s double life as novelist/editor undoubtedly leads, as he put it in a recent interview, to his sense of “the disparity between the way we comprehend and direct our lives and the reality underneath, which is [our minds’] effort at constructing a story.” Yet lack of certitude, the thematic touchstone of The Treatment, does not always serve this debut novel when carried into its plotting.

The novel gets off to a zesty start. The first forty pages introduce an engaging trio—Jake Singer, the book’s brittle narrator, who teaches at Coventry, a prep school on Manhattan’s West Side; Samira Khoury, an exotic beauty who withholds nothing during their brief affair, which she has just terminated; and Dr. Ernesto Morales, Jake’s devilish Cuban psychoanalyst, “the last Freudian,” who is enlisted anew to help his client weather this latest storm (“There are all kinds of whores, Mr. Singer—including those who do not know they are whores,” he says).

Readers will miss Samira, “a gift from sex heaven.” She supplies vicarious sexual provender for Dr. Morales, courtesy of his blistering interrogation (“Did she have a climax? What kind of noises did she make? Now, would you tell me what positions you used?”). Jake’s only consolation is that Morales was wrong when he assumed Samira was a prostitute. Leaving Jake’s life, she also leaves a check he has written her in tiny pieces along with a doodle-like drawing on a napkin—a witty, ruinously ambiguous cartoon of Jake that could be affectionate or devastating.

Fictively, the novel never quite builds after a galvanic first movement (“The Eden of Anxiety”) that is both poignant and funny. At the start of the second movement, which Menaker entitles “The Great Imponderables,” the novel begins to unravel. The setting moves from New York to Massachusetts. This section introduces Sarah Gibson, a likable enough woman whose star- crossed history includes a son and a divorce, a pregnancy with a partner who is killed virtually on the eve of their wedding, and a second marriage to a possessive young attorney who convinces her that their union cannot be complete unless she recovers the girl whom she gave up for adoption.

Parts of both subplots have appeared in different form as stories in The New Yorker. They worked better separately. Menaker has created in The Treatment a marvelously polished novel that leaves an antiseptic taste—a closed system that can lend a cloying smugness to some of...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)