Taking literature and theory courses in college, a person can become well versed in the art of dissection. Students are taught to perform autopsies on prose and poetry to discern why the author did what was done, the meaning of every detail and what, specifically, brought the writing to life. Just as the subject of a post-mortem is dead, or will be by the time the investigation is complete, so too, usually, is the fate of the literary selection being studied. The essential, unidentifiable spark that animated the work often escapes in the process.
David Czuchlewski, a recent Princeton graduate and current medical student, seems to know his literary theory as well as the hazards of necropsy. His first novel, "The Muse Asylum," mines the territory-at-issue in such literary theory discussions, but in this case he attempts to give life rather than take it. Using the expanse of the postmodern novel to pose questions that are often confined to the dry academic terms of the theorist, Czuchlewski seizes a rare opportunity: to imbue ideology with the breath of life.
This is the premise on which his theoretical queries hang: The narrator, Jake Burnett, is a cub reporter for the Manhattan Ledger, a fictional throwaway alternative newspaper in New York, low on the journalistic totem pole. Jake's first big assignment is to unmask the reclusive author Horace Jacob Little. Meanwhile, Andrew Wallace, who attended Princeton with Jake and stole Jake's true love, Lara, is in a mental institution for the artistically gifted known as "The Muse Asylum" as the result of his own preoccupation with Jacob Little's identity. The three narrative strands--Jake's loss of Lara, Lara's love for Andrew and Andrew's seemingly unhinged "Confessions"--Jake pieces together in his hunt for Jacob Little.
The story unfolds in a whodunit fashion, with Czuchlewski investigating specific issues of literary theory in the process: Do authors owe anything to their readers beyond the text? his story asks. Are readers entitled to pursue an author in order to locate the ideas that spawned the work? Do the underpinnings matter, or is the text the be-all and end-all? The novel is well constructed, with a story line that compels a quick flip of its pages as Jake tries to find the elusive Jacob Little. Problems arise, though, when Czuchlewski takes the theories he introduces literally. The death-of-the-author concept is translated into suspicions of the author's actual murder, which makes for a compelling mystery tale, but nothing deeper.
Throughout, the reader sees the mystery-plot scaffolding propping up the corpse of his theoretical inquiries. At other times, the narrative sticks so close to the pensive nature of the queries that the dialogue reads as if it's been lifted right out of a college lit class, offering little illumination of the characters or their real-life predicaments: "The desire to know all about an author is a sign of laziness on the part of the reader," one character postulates. "When all you have is the text
Confronting what Czuchlewski has written, one notices that the larger question the book poses--What is the relationship between creativity, genius and insanity?--is never adequately addressed. When Jake's editor asks him "Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be insane?" it's clear neither Jake nor his author has taken the question as anything but a navel-gazing proposition.
Instead, we're given a romanticized version of creative insanity that varies not one wit from trite stereotypes. Insanity is reduced here to the paranoid judgments Andrew records in his "Confessions": "There are dangerous people out there--conspiracies and secret societies most people would never dream could exist."
To his credit, Czuchlewski uses commonly held assumptions about how we judge craziness in order to further his plot. Still, the gap between genuine mental illness and the fantasy world this story presents makes for a one-dimensional thriller--which is fine, in and of itself, except that the book sets readers up to expect something deeper.
In Czuchlewski's world, life clearly imitates art. Lara's attempted suicide is "Ophelia in love with Hamlet," and Andrew's insanity is a gauzy version of Hamlet's dementia. But the imitation is a weak one, parodying rather than producing the real thing. In the same way that extrapolating theory from art takes the breath out of the art, so too, creating art from theory--at least in this text--doesn't add much life.
Czuchlewski raises difficult, important questions in an unexpected way, using a strong voice coupled with a good sense of story--all of which make for even greater disappointment when the important questions he poses are reduced to set dressing. One hopes that his next work might move a step closer to that spark that animates literature, because he's clearly on its path.