Monday, May 6, 2013
Photo: Bellevue Hospital Ambulance, New York Times, 1895--from the Wikipedia page of The Alienist.
Been a few weeks away with illness, exhaustion, overwork, and some good headway on my novel and some shorter pieces. Sort of an odd time lately, mostly without focus. I've been reading six or seven books, and writing too many things at once--and not completing any reading or writing at all. My sleeping patterns have been all screwed up, and...blah blah blah. I'm tired of my own whining, but it is what it is.
That changed with The Alienist, a novel so well-written that I finished all 597 pages in just a few days, even waking up early to read it. I read it through my cluster-headache on Sunday; I read it through an otherwise scattered-minded few weeks. It cut through all that and straightened my focus and psyche out--for quite awhile, I hope.
I'd heard great things about this for a long time, and finally I gave it a go, with regret, since I'm trying to finish about six other things, like I said. But I'm glad I did.
This novel has a lot going for it. It's told in a first-person limited POV, by a reporter narrator who's good at describing his world without making it seem like he's purposely describing his world. But he is, and he needs to for us, because he's describing 1896 NYC (and a little of D.C. and New Paltz, NY, too). Caleb Carr does a fantastic job making this world interesting and alive, and the crimes he covers--and the investigation they cause--are top-notch. (But not for the squeamish.) Essentially Carr describes the first wrinkles of what has become known as criminal profiling, which basically can be boiled down to analyzing the crime, and then asking yourself, What kind of person could have committed this crime, exactly this way, in this exact place and time?
As readers of this blog should know, I've long been interested in this kind of thing myself, so it was very cool to see some characters using these methods as the focus of their investigations. In addition to profiling the crime, they profile a letter the serial murderer sends to a victim's mother--with some handwriting analysis as well, also new at the time--and there's a lot of attention paid to the earliest childhood years of many criminals in the book, also a cornerstone of criminal profiling. Abusive and criminal parents will, more often than not, create abusive and criminal offspring. This sort of implies that it's more nurture than nature, and that free will isn't all that strong, either, but that's a misreading that many people today--and many characters in the book--suffer from.
I'll leave that to the reader. Bottom line is, if you like historical fiction, or crime/criminal investigation, or the 1890s in general, or if--like me--you happen to like all of those things combined, than this book is the one for you. As I've said about some of Stephen King's books, there's something to be said for a 597-page book that's read in about three days.
As I mentioned, it was so good that it straightened out my psyche for a few days, and made me feel more complete, more whole, more in my own realm--whatever the hell that is. Next up: his follow-up, The Angel of Darkness.
As the footnote at the beginning of the book says, an alienist is today's psychiatrist, or mental health researcher, as someone who needed to speak to someone like this (because there were few private practices in those days, so most people, especially the poor, would have to be committed to a facility or to a hospital to speak to one) was thought to be alienated, both from their society and from their own true natures. (Sort of like how I've felt the last few weeks, though not to the extremes you'll read here.) So a helper to these people would be an alienist.
Caleb Carr himself is quite an interesting guy, as is the story surrounding Lucius Carr, his (in)famous father. It seems as if his father stabbed to death a man who was hitting on him, and William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac helped him dispose of the body and of some evidence before Carr confessed. He served a couple of years in an Elmira prison, then worked for UPI for 47 years, though he was apparently also an alcoholic and an abusive father.
Caleb Carr comes off as a novelist of historical fiction who also dabbles in historical articles and books (and, it turns out, screenplays of two Exorcist prequels), but it turns out to be the opposite. He's a well-respected historian. Caleb has an injury to his arm and shoulder, similar to his alienist character, and he lives in a beautiful, self-made home with a wrap-around porch, in the mountains--alienated from his society, and recovering, as Carr admits, from being alien to himself.
Art imitates life.