A brilliant debut about paranoia, shifting identities, “multiple souls and alternative universes,” and other exhilarating confusions, by a young medical student who was one of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing students at Princeton.
There are two juxtaposed narratives here, one related by Princeton grad and newspaper reporter Jake Burnett, the other presented as excerpts from the autobiographical “Confessions” of Jake’s former classmate and casual acquaintance Andrew Wallace—who, by the time they meet again, is a patient at the eponymous Asylum (“an institution for the artistically gifted mentally ill”). The initial link between them is Lara Knowles, the brilliant and beautiful coed who was Andrew’s lover (and the object of Jake’s unrequited lust)—and also a reclusive writer, Horace Jacob Little, whose enigmatic figure grows in Andrew’s fragile mind from admired favorite author into an “enemy” whom Andrew imagines plots to destroy him. Or is this delusion? The reader’s hold on the tricky “reality” here repeatedly slips, as Andrew moves in and out of what is either schizophrenia or intuitive genius, Jake’s quest for a big story intriguingly alters his relationships with the unstable Andrew and the elusive Little, who may or may not e himself, a “double” who has appropriated his identity, a former patient at the Muse Asylum whose other patients became his fictional characters—or indeed all these things. Czuchlewski keeps us guessing throughout an elegantly crafted psychological thriller in which this first-time novelist also manages the notoriously difficult feat of summarizing Horace Jacob Little’s (Dantesque and Borgesian) short stories and novels in a manner that convinces us they’re the products of a strange, possibly insane genius. And there’s a stunning final turn of the screw in the closing pages.
A fabulous debut. Look for big things from this new writer. He’s the genuine article.