Seen through a therapist’s eyes, characters unfurl

By Mameve Medwed
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2010

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You don’t have to be Woody Allen, a shrink, an armchair psychologist, a student of human nature, a fan of the hit TV show “In Treatment,’’ or even in treatment yourself to appreciate Noam Shpancer’s extraordinary debut novel, “The Good Psychologist.’’

From the first page, Shpancer, a psychologist and professor, catapults you onto the therapist’s couch and into his thought process. Who wouldn’t welcome a close-up of the person taking notes during your 50 minutes or leading your seminar? Well, now’s your chance to enter a brain as accessible as the one in a Visible Man. Here’s what the good psychologist sees. Here’s what he thinks. Here’s what he says and doesn’t say. Through the labyrinthine corridors of his mind, we learn to recognize when a cigar is just a cigar and when it isn’t.

Such a microscopic vision of a psychologist at work is a revelation, especially since the whole novel is set inside the analyst’s head. Referred to throughout simply as “the good psychologist,’’ our protagonist is a nameless narrator, a conceit both irritating, yet also excusable as a device to keep us at a distance and to underscore a trained professional’s necessary detachment.

Despite the therapist’s cultivated blank face and measured tone, we chip away at the surface to dislodge tiny nuggets of his character the same way he gets his patients to open up once he wins their trust. But he’s hard to know. Nondescript, methodical, he lives alone in a small but pleasant apartment, which he keeps “deliberately dark.” His street is quiet. He’s lonely. He treats patients at the Center for Anxiety Disorders between 10 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon; he teaches an evening class at the local college. Though he has no sexual partner, he yearns for Nina, a colleague married to an ill husband, and whose child he has fathered at her request but has never met. “So what am I to you?” [Nina asks.] “It is being investigated. We’re examining it,” [he answers].

A serial interpreter, the psychologist examines and investigates everything. An impatient commuter honking as a traffic light changes is tolerated because “the context, the situation determines our actions.” T-shirts, bumper stickers, tattoos “are rooted in an attempt . . . to escape a kind of annihilating anonymity.”

In the novel’s alternating chapters, the good psychologist struggles with his relationship — or lack of one — with Nina, teaches his inspiring night classes, and holds therapy sessions with a new client, an exotic dancer named Tiffany who has developed crippling stage fright. When Tiffany asks whether he can help her, he replies “I can support you in the process where you learn to help yourself.”

He introduces a similar method to his students. Not just the ideal shrink, he’s also the humorous and humane professor whose classes always have a waiting list. In his Introduction to Therapy Course, the good psychologist assigns challenging mental exercises. He imparts a wisdom that, in cadence, sounds almost Biblical: “Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling materials . . . revelation and darkness;” “An unexamined life is not worth living, so said Socrates. An unlived life is not worth examining, so said I.” “The therapist is like a driving instructor, not a chauffeur.’’ The secret of therapy is “genuine acceptance that does not demand anything in return.” “In trying to map the depths of the internal realm, all we have at our disposal are primitive tools: conversation, observation, introspection. And even with all our tools, we are lucky to ever break through even the outermost layer.”

As tough as that outside layer is, hairline cracks appear. Temptations taunt even the most self-disciplined man. Tiffany is seductive. Nina obsesses him. Though he consults Nina regularly on the phone as a colleague, he hasn’t seen her in five years. He goes to Chicago for a conference he knows she’ll be attending while promising himself not to ask about their child: “He would let go, and he would move on.”

Metaphors abound. Meanings underlie meanings. In good literary fashion, we are shown, not told, when the iconic cigar takes on symbolic weight. There’s an interlude with a piano tuner. A pool game. A troubled student. Tiffany shows up at his door. He betrays a secret. His defenses break down. He attends a student’s wedding. He tries to see his daughter. To help Tiffany, he goes to the Silver Fox club to watch her dance: exposure therapy for a stripper, he jokes. Boundaries dissolve. Uncomfortable feelings emerge.

Like most truly satisfying books, this one favors an accumulation of insights over plot. How will the characters reveal themselves, we wonder; how will the psychologist interpret their words and deeds? We flip the pages, curious, fascinated. What is therapy? he asks his students. Change? Or simply “surrender and concession.”

Though we start out in the narrator’s head, by the end we have not only experienced change, but have also mapped a trip to his heart. In this masterful debut, Shpancer offers his readers a rare privilege and a splendid gift.

Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels, the most recent, ”Of Men and Their Mothers.” She can be reached at

By Noam Shpancer
Holt, 238 pp., $24