Review: David Czuchlewski, The Muse Asylum

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.

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Hardback: 240 pages. New York: Putnam, 2001. ISBN: 0399147454.
Trade Paperback: 225 pages. New York: Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 0142000604.

I hope my first novel, if I ever manage to write it, is as good as David Czuchlewski’s. He’s an author to watch, especially because his intentions appear to be literary, not merely commercial.

The Muse Asylum is not summer beach reading, which allows your brain to be left at home (or, at worst, demands it be left at home). You need not be well versed in literary criticism to enjoy this novel, but if the word postmodern scares you when you see it in a book review, this gem may not be for you.

Every fashion in literary criticism becomes ridiculous at the extremes. One of Postmodernism’s chief excesses is the notion that the author of a text (never a book or a story, always a text) is irrelevant to the meaning of the text. Roland Barthes went so far as to declare the death of the author, along with the “liberation” of the reader “from the tyranny of plot.”

The text supposedly speaks for itself, and it may allow interpretations which are completely at odds with what the author thought she meant. This is too much liberty and too little responsibility. I incline instead toward Vladimir Nabokov’s notion of the astute reader, who identifies with the author – as opposed to the postmodern reader, who ignores the author, or the typical reader, who identifies with a character. There may be some use in attempting to examine a text independent of its author, but when the “death of the author” becomes a dogma, one readily sees why the rest of the world cannot take most literary criticism seriously.

Enter a fictional American writer, one Horace Jacob Little, who prefers for theoretical or personal reasons (no one is quite certain) to write anonymously. That is, his books bear his name, or at least a name, but he hides from his readers so successfully that no one knows anything else about him.

His fiction changes the lives of three Princeton students, among many others, by opening minds to new and different ways of thinking. The Muse Asylum focuses on these three, during and after their Princeton years.

Jake Burnett starts reading Horace Jacob Little in high school. At Princeton, he introduces the captivating Lara Anne Knowles to Little’s works. Jake and Lara become more than friends, until Andrew Wallace steals her away. Significantly, the Horace Jacob Little book Jake gives to Lara finally falls into Andrew’s hands. This marks the beginning of the end of Andrew’s sanity.

Andrew loses his mind at Princeton, finally becoming convinced that the invisible, godlike Horace Jacob Little is the author of a vast conspiracy to destroy him. He believes that someone murdered the original Horace Jacob Little, took his place, continued to write under his name, and confessed his crime in an obscure way in his “next” novel. Now the impostor seeks to kill Andrew, who has figured it all out.

When the novel begins, after Princeton, Jake is working for an alternative newspaper in New York City. In an effort to boost circulation, his editor assigns him to do what no one else has done: find Horace Jacob Little and interview him. This assignment leads Jake to renew his association with both Andrew and Lara.

Through all the plot twists, nothing is quite what it seems. Or, rather, some things might be, but it’s devilishly hard to tell. The person Jake finally finds and interviews may or may not be the real Horace Jacob Little. An obvious suicide may not have been a suicide. Insane fantasies may not all be insane, after all. And Andrew’s obsession, the exposure of the supposed murdering impostor, may be contagious. The key to the mystery turns out to be at the Muse Asylum, a haven for the gifted but insane.

The novel is written in the first person, but there are actually two voices. For the most part, Jake and Andrew alternate chapters. Jake’s account begins with the assignment to find Horace Jacob Little. Lara plays the sane third party and a love interest who is for Jake ultimately unattainable. Andrew’s chapters are excerpts from his autobiography, written at the asylum as a therapeutic exercise, and focused on the Princeton years. In these chapters, Lara is the love of his life and a friendly island in an ominous sea of faces, any of which might belong to the mysterious Horace Jacob Little or one of his minions. Keeping track of which narrative voice is which is a bit of a challenge for a few chapters, but that is not too much for a good writer to expect of good readers.

Read simply as a mystery, The Muse Asylum is fascinating and full of unexpected reversals. Read as a commentary on the Postmodern death of the author – actually, the complete irrelevance of the author – it is a delightful poke at a fashionable critical extreme. For in this fictional world, the author is far more important than the text. Jake and Andrew cannot embrace Horace Jacob Little’s works without desiring, even obsessively, to discover and understand the authorial mind which created them. And it works both ways: what, and how much, the text says about its author is an open question, in Horace Jacob Little’s case. In the end, it may well be more than everyone but Andrew had supposed.

Read at a psychological level, this novel poses, but leaves unanswered, some delicious questions: What is insanity? How is it related to genius? Who is sane, and who, really, is insane? At the end of the novel, one is inclined to doubt that there are easy answers.

Since authors do seem to matter, after all, I note that David Czuchlewski is a Princeton graduate and a medical student in New York City, and is working on his second novel. I’m looking forward to it.

Note: David Czuchlewski’s second novel was Empire of Lightwhich was published in 2001. I very much enjoyed it and have since watched in vain for a third novel.

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