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    I listen for my muse and I can only hear her in silence.  Writing is an intensely private process.  I'm
    afraid there's no grand philosophical justification for my secrecy.  The desire to know all about an
    author is a sign of laziness on the part of the reader.  It's easier to digest a work of literature when
    you can attach it to a face, or a set of political beliefs or life-style choices.  When all you have is the
    text, or a body of work, you have to confront what is written.
        -Horace Jacob Little (Interview with Jake Burnett in the Manhattan Ledger)

Journalist Jake Burnett, though fresh out of Princeton, has settled for a job on the Manhattan Ledger :

    People considered it an alternative to the New York Press, which was an alternative to The Village
    Voice, which was itself an alternative to the mainstream dailies.

At a lunch with his editor, a frustrated and drunken man who once showed some promise, Jake is perhaps a tad too effusive in his praise for Horace Jacob Little, author of stories reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges, but a notorious recluse who has guarded his privacy for decades with the determination of a Salinger or a Pynchon.  The editor, motivated as much by bitterness and professional jealousy as by the desire for a journalistic coup, assigns Jake to find and profile the author.

At the same time, Jake meets an old girlfriend from college, Lara Knowles, a blue-blooded beauty from Connecticut.  In flashbacks, Jake recalls their relationship and that he once lent her a book by Little, with whom she too became besotted.  Now Lara asks him to get in touch with, Andrew Wallace, who she dated after Jake.  Andrew was a brilliant student, but, having undertaken a thesis on Little in order to impress Lara, began to lose his grip on reality and developed paranoid delusion that Little was out to get him.  Lara gives Jake a copy of The Confessions of Andrew Wallace, which Andrew has been writing while receiving treatment at Overlook Psychiatric Hospital in Upstate New York, known as the Muse Asylum because it caters to gifted but disturbed artists.  In the Confessions, Andrew describes his theories about Little, most prominent among them that the author's midcareer change in writing style occurred when another writer killed Little and took his place.  As Jake pursues Horace Jacob Little, and Andrew's paranoid obsession continues, first time author, recent Princeton grad, and current medical student, David Czuchlewski uses his very clever plot to ruminate on the relationship between the author and his public and draws the reader into some delightfully puzzling speculation about what it is truly possible to know about an author and whether it is necessary to know them in order to understand what they've written.

I suppose I can pay this novel no higher compliment than to admit that it had me quite discombobulated.  I found a galley proof at a book sale and noticed the positively glowing cover blurb from Joyce Carol Oates :

    The Muse Asylum is an ingeniously plotted postmodernist mystery that introduces a young writer of
    exceptional gifts.  David Czuchlewski writes with imagination, vision, and style.

That's pretty high praise for a neophyte.  Intrigued, I opened the book and found the explanation in the author's dedication :

    Thanks to Joyce Carol Oates, my teacher and advisor, without whom I would not have started,
    completed, or published this novel.

That's a common enough occurrence in the publishing world--one of the weekly magazines even used to track the incestuous world of blurbing, either The New Republic or National Review or someone like that--but amusing nonetheless.  However, the description of the book sounded interesting, so I grabbed it.

Then I started reading it and got caught up in all intricacies of the story and the mystery of whether Horace Jacob Little even exists and how anyone can know for sure...  Gradually it began to occur to me that the whole book might be nothing more than a hoax, an elaborate and ironic comment by Oates or a writer friend, in which the point was not merely that there's no Horace Jacob Little in the novel, but that there's no David Czuchlewski in real life.  Art imitates life, imitates art, and so on.  Finally, after a scene in which a computer whiz friend helps Jake find Little's email address, I too sent an email to that address, wondering if this might somehow be a game within the game, which a discerning reader was supposed to figure out.  Suffice it to say, there was no such address.

At any rate, it's a terrific novel, especially if it is the maiden effort of a 24 year old medical student.  Which I'm still not convinced it is.…


Grade: (A)


See also:

General Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW : of The Muse Asylum by David Czuchlewski  (Claire Splan, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Muse Asylum by David Czuchlewski (Todd Kliman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Muse Asylum (Jana Siciliano, Book Reporter)

    -ESSAY : Mad Poets Society (Alex Beam, Atlantic Monthly)