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.

Art without Adrenalin: A Review of David Baldacci’s Wish You Well

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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: 401 pp. New York: Warner Books, 2000. ISBN: 0446527165.

When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved from Boulder, Colorado, to a small, unincorporated farm town in Idaho, which had a post office but no traffic lights. I was a city kid, so my immediate sense of its smallness was based on the absence of public transportation not only in my new hometown, but also in the small nearby city and the larger cities up and down the interstate.

But size wasn’t the biggest shock. In the mid-1970s Boulder was trying desperately to be Berkeley, California. I was probably wrong, but my impression then was that there were very few people in southeastern Idaho who were even aware that there was any world at all outside the borders of Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.

The children at school and at church were not accustomed to newcomers. They greeted my arrival with countless petty persecutions. It didn’t help that I instantly found myself well ahead of all the other students in every subject I had already studied at Aurora 7 Elementary – except orchestra, because my new school didn’t have one.

I came near the beginning of a wave of immigrants from out of state, so I suppose my classmates were experiencing their own version of culture shock. At the time, however, I only noticed my own.

At length, my new milieu and I became accustomed to each other. I found some friends at school. Before and after school, and during summer vacation, I tended half an acre of vegetable garden and worked on nearby farms. Somehow, in the process, I came to appreciate the land and its people, to see the quiet goodness that often concealed itself behind bad grammar and dirty overalls.

We were 60 miles from where my mother grew up, though not so distant, culturally. So when David Baldacci announces in his introduction that he is offering a sort of history of “both where and how my mother grew up,” he has met me on familiar territory.

Lou (“don’t call me Louisa Mae”) Cardinal is twelve years old, the tomboy daughter of a struggling, gifted writer, Jack Cardinal, and Amanda, his gentle, insightful wife. Little brother Oz (for Oscar, after Oscar Wilde) is seven. On the way home to New York City from an outing in a borrowed car, there is an accident. Jack is killed, Amanda is left a vegetable, and mother and children are launched on an unexpected journey from New York City to the mountains of Virginia, where the children will grow up in the care of their great-grandmother, who is also named Louisa Mae Cardinal.

My own culture shock pales next to Lou’s, and the minor trauma of my father’s unemployment hardly compares to a father’s tragic death as a motivation to emigrate. Nor were my rural persecutors as vicious as Lou’s. But as I read this gentle, moving novel, two parallel plots unfolded in my mind: the fictional saga of Lou and Oz in a strange, new world; and my own, very similar memories of childhood.

The two plots – mine and Baldacci’s – have many common details. Lou and Oz find themselves far ahead in their new country school. They plant corn. They discover manure’s rich potential for pranks. Eventually, their chores, once unimaginably strange, become “as natural as breathing.” They find friends and protectors. They find a kindred spirit in attorney Cotton Longfellow, the great-great-great-grandson of the famous author, who lives in rural Virginia because it is as far from literary Boston as one can possibly be.

In the beginning, when they discover that nature itself is far bigger than New York City, Lou and Oz are frightened and intimidated. As time passes, their awe is undiminished, but they begin to feel almost at home in the daily battle to hold back the encroaching wilderness, as did I. Still, at least until the epilogue, they are destined to remain outsiders (albeit sympathetic outsiders) in the alien world where Jack Cardinal grew up, but where his literary gift and the culture that appreciated it mean nothing.

I indulge my personal reflections here to make two points. First, my personal response to Wish You Well is so rooted in my own experience that my objectivity is in doubt. (I don’t apologize for this.) Second, and more significantly, David Baldacci has succeeded in creating what his fictional Jack Cardinal achieved: “vivid landscapes densely populated with flawed characters who, with each turn of the page, seemed more real than one’s family.”

Since we tend to caricature our own family members, and because we are prone to look forward, not behind us, such a book has merit far beyond entertainment. It can cause us to see those around us and our past with new eyes.

Obviously, this is not a Baldacci thriller. There is some legal drama, but it is more in the spirit of To Kill a Mockingbird than of modern legal thrillers. There is the occasional auto accident or explosion, even arson, but they are realistic and believable, not sparks in a turbo-charged engine invented to drive the plot at a frenzied pace.

The heroes and villains are not the stock characters of thrillers. Rather than a brilliant, ruthless, megalomaniac billionaire or a corrupt politician, the villains here are a cruel farmer who starves his wife and children, and a gas company. Even the latter evil is less that of a corporation than of the men who work for it, who think they can buy whatever they want.

The heroes are quiet, reflective children, not daring, desperate, resourceful, beautiful adults. The people around them are not the bright lights of business and politics, but the good people of the mountain, mostly illiterate but not stupid. Where in a thriller great battles might be won or great crimes committed, here there is a schoolyard brawl and a triumphant barn-raising.

In short, Wish You Well is much nearer to everyday life than the conventional best-selling thriller. Metaphorically, it is Simon Birch or Forrest Gump, not Air Force One.

As days and years pass, Lou deliberately learns a great deal about her father, who, though deceased, is very much present throughout the novel. The children live with the woman who raised him, in the house where he was raised, in the world about which he wrote his books. They read his schoolbooks and attend his school. He is more of a presence than Amanda, who remains alive in the next room, but unresponsive.

In the economy of novels, Baldacci would probably have killed Amanda, too, if she were not meant finally to come back to life. I wondered how he would pull it off, and whether it would be believable. Perhaps this means the device is a bit too obvious for so artful a novel.

I won’t spoil the suspense, though, except to note that I’m not sure miracles have to be believable. Maybe they are not, by definition. Perhaps, like life, so humane and realistic a tale of faith and family and sacrifice would be incomplete without miracle. At least the concluding miracle here is more plausible than the plots of most thrillers.

Some Tom Clancy fans complained when, after two novels, he began to devote more pages to his characters and fewer to high-tech weaponry. Perhaps some Baldacci fans will protest that love, faith, sacrifice, and everyday villainy are a poor substitute for high adventure, romance, and evil in high places. Not I.

In terms of his language, Baldacci here is still very much the author of the page-turning thriller. His artistry is in the tale he tells, not the words and sentences he used to tell it. One does not pause to savor his prose, as one must, for example, when reading Annie Dillard. Still, this is a good story, told well enough to keep me turning pages.

I get Baldacci’s thrillers at the library or buy them in paperback, enjoy them, and pass them on. I bought Wish You Well in hardback, and I’m glad. This one I’ll keep. I’ve recommended it to friends. I may even read it to my children. This is his best work to date, but I hope it doesn’t remain so. I’ll keep reading his thrillers, if he’ll keep writing them, but I hope he has another novel or two in him like Wish You Well – or even better.