When trying to understand a person, a character in a book, or oneself, the first existential questions to ask are the questions of identity: Who am I? Where did I come from? How do I define myself? How do others see me?
No novel in recent memory toys with these questions more adeptly than David Czuchlewski's Muse Asylum. The story follows four primary characters all caught up in their various crises of identity. The most straightforward is the narrator, Jake Burnett, who works as a reporter but expresses doubts about his career and his past choices that have led him to his current role. Next is Laura Knowles, Jake's former girlfriend. Laura is running away from a bizarre incident in her love life by hiding behind the facade of a safe, comfortable everyday life (an illusion which shatters easily as one's imagined normalcy so often does). Then comes Andrew Wallace, a talented young artist who completely loses himself in paranoid delusions that he is being stalked by a famous writer. That writer is Horace Jacob Little, a Salingeresque recluse even more obscure than Sean Connery's character in Finding Forrester. Little is so unknown that he has never consented to an interview and his photo has never been published. However, even his missing identity must be questioned after Andrew theorizes that the true unknown author might have been murdered and replaced by a second unknown writer who has "discovered metaphysics."
Needless to say, this novel is a literary mystery involving both literal and figurative searches for identity, all tied together by one of Little's books and an institution for the artistic insane known as the Muse Asylum. These quests circle around on themselves in so many interesting and amusing ways that the reader quickly gets sucked in, racing through the chapters to see what these characters can learn about each other and about themselves. That is not to say, however, that things are cleared up perfectly in the end. In fact, as some questions of identity are resolved, new ones develop until even Czuchlewski's identity as author of this novel can no longer be taken as a certainty.
One other interesting thing about The Muse Asylum is the way Czuchlewski incorporates details of stories written by the brilliant author, Little. He does it so smoothly in the same way Vonnegut pulls in science fiction stories from his fictional Kilgore Trout, detailing them as though genuine tales from a magazine. But thes stories are not just asides. As with Trout's stories, Little's scenes all come to play in larger novel being written around them. Czuchlewski does this with such ease that the reader might question if there might be a REAL Horace Jacob Little out there. All this adds up to make the identity questions this novel raises that much more honest and compelling.
All in all, The Muse Asylum is a gripping, if somewhat brief (225 pages) debut by an author destined for success. It is a novel as suited for a couple of days at the beach as it is to be read for a long discussion by a philosophy club. Consider it well worth the cover price in hardback.
Reviewed Aug. 4, 2001
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