Book response: Dr. Neruda's Cure for Evil

I picked up Dr. Neruda's Cure for Evil, by Rafael Yglesias, on a recommendation I read from Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution, and enjoyed it a good deal.

I don’t usually like books about therapy and therapeutic cures, but this one held me, and, I think, educated me a bit about therapy, its uses, and its limitations. Written in a straightforward, almost deadpan style, I read it with a pleasure I don’t get as often from novels as I used to. It’s long because it has a lot to say, not because the author can’t bear to edit his own work. The various sections of the book have strong narrative lines, and build suspense in a way that isn’t as typical of literary fiction as it should be.  I recommend it also.

And it certainly should have gotten more attention from people who like fun books with ideas, as Mr. Cowen says.  That said, I think Yglesias flubs a lot of the issues the book has put in play when he reaches his third section.

And the book is sectional. The first is a psychological biography of Dr. Neruda, explaining his personal issues and behaviors. The second is about Dr. Neruda’s professional career, centered on the analysis of one particular patient, but also dealing with the issues of the 80s mass child abuse trials and the introduction of psychoactive drugs like Prozac (the book was written in the mid-90s and much of its action takes place a few years before). This section ends with a crisis that propels Dr. Neruda into becoming something like a corporate trainer. He works for a computer design company and solves the psychological problems of its employees.

This section manages to drop all the interesting issues raised in the middle third, and additionally has things like a long technical description of a doubles tennis game, showing Neruda’s control of all things psychological.

I’m not sure why Yglesias made this choice. Neruda drops his life to counsel the various people at this company (two in particular), and drops all the issues he had worked so carefully and subtly to raise for investigation.  What we get in return is nowhere near as significant.  And it's interesting, because writers usually flub the middle third, between setup and denouement.

It might be because Yglesias picked an odd emotional progression:  in the first third, Neruda is deeply involved (it's his own childhood), in the second almost as deeply involved (it's his adult life, and a patient that he cares a lot about), while in the third he's as involved as any committed corporate trainer would be (OK, maybe a bit more than that).  Tension drops.

Now, if someone had rained on the last part of Dr. Neruda’s parade like this before I read the book, I might not have started it—which would have been a mistake. There aren’t enough good books out there to miss this one.  And even the third section suffers mostly by being in contrast to the first two.  Find it, read it, and tell me what you think.