By David Czuchlewksi

Putnam. 225 pp. $23.95

A lot of us who slogged through grad school began tuning out for good when we got to deconstructionism and Roland Barthes, that joyless Robespierre of literary theory with his self-aggrandizing pronouncement about the "death of the author." What Barthes's followers adopted as a rallying cry to liberate the reader (or, rather, the critic; a lot Barthes and his merry band cared about the poor soul who actually reads for pleasure) from the tyranny of authorial intention was, for the rest of us, just so much hot air. Not so for David Czuchlewski, who, one can only assume, listened and learned and then sat down and turned that bold declaration of war into the premise of his first novel, a clever little tale of literary gamesmanship.

What if the author, in this case the author of some of the most talked-about books of his time, were quite literally dead -- that is to say, what if this author, a Salinger-esque recluse, had been bumped off in mid-career and another writer had taken up in his stead, cranking out a stream of books under the famous author's name? It's the sort of speculation that webheads and conspiracy theorists and literary gossips have bandied about for years (Is Salinger alive? Is he Pynchon? Or, wait -- what if Salinger never existed? What if Pynchon invented him, then "killed" him off and began writing under his own name?), and Czuchlewski has fun playing with all the multiple possibilities of his premise, somewhat in the manner of a brilliant academic showoff.

Some books read like outtakes from a writing workshop; The Muse Asylum reads as if it were conceived during an especially spirited college bull session. Czuchlewski, currently a third-year medical student at Mount Sinai, is said to have written it while still an undergraduate at Princeton, and, as might be expected, the effort frequently reeks of adolescent nostalgia, literary pretension and self-congratulation. (In a publicity interview, Czuchlewski notes that he has always felt compelled to write. And I have always felt compelled to practice medicine.) The narrator pronounces an experience not memorable but "seminal." Characters long wistfully for those bygone days of, oh, four or five years ago, when they were sophomores with the world spread out before them. Intellectual discussions abound, of the sort engaged in by earnest undergraduates desperate to impress you with the fact that they have seen an El Greco or read Borges. And I don't know if it's meant to demonstrate a touch of worldliness or what, but I defy anyone to show me a recent college graduate who owns a Picasso, as does the computer hacker-turned-corporate-techno-wizard who tracks down the writer's whereabouts.

The self-consciousness and insufferable postmodern wink-winking notwithstanding, there is a well-paced, nicely plotted story here. For all his seeming pretension, Czuchlewski has really written a literary whodunit, with a journalist instead of a detective whose obsessive search for the truth drives the action. The seeker is Jake Burnett, a recent Princeton grad now working for a Manhattan newspaper, who, at his editor's urging, sets out to "find" the writer Horace Jacob Little, a master of American letters who for the past 25 years has managed to evade the public radar. Burnett is a reluctant unmasker -- he hasn't got the gusto for journalism -- but the prospect of coming face to face with the man whose stories have provided him with nothing less than the "clues to why I was alive in the first place" proves seductive. He's not alone in his passion for Little's books. There's also Lara, a sort-of girlfriend at Princeton (as in those hip, cookie-cutter New York novels of the '80s, none of the relationships in here cuts all that deeply) who introduced him to Little; and Andrew Wallace, another Princetonian, whose "confessions" Czuchlewski intersperses throughout the narrative. In one way or another, each of their lives is bound and determined by this putative titan of modernism. Czuchlewski wants us to wonder about their obsessiveness, but to read the excerpted work is to wonder, rather, if they are deluded -- the work of the "master" seems like warmed-over metafiction.

In the same way, we are supposed to see Wallace, at least initially, as somewhat deranged and, later, brilliantly insightful -- a genius no less. Instead, he seems unconvincing, an idea for a fully developed character rather than the genuine article. Madness is a kind of trump card for the novelist of ideas, so long as the character is sufficiently nutso that you don't have to dirty your hands with the details that make a character live. Wallace fits the bill. Since college he's been obsessed with what he believes to be the great, unanswered riddle of Little's work: the abrupt shift from the highly charged prose of his early stories to the more meditative, metaphysical approach he favors in his more recent fiction. Little, he decides, is not really Little at all. He's a fraud, an impostor. And worse -- a killer. In fact, Wallace is convinced that the great man of letters is plotting to take him down.

Of course no one gives it a moment's thought, least of all his literature professor, who begins to fear not just for Wallace's safety but, as the latter becomes more and more obsessed with proving the worth of his theory, his own as well. Wallace, for his troubles, winds up an inmate of the Overlook Psychiatric Institute in upstate New York, a mental hospital for artists and other gifted but tortured souls. It's here, in the relative quiet of the Muse Asylum, that Wallace works out his ideas, which, as Burnett discovers when he comes for a visit, don't sound so strange after all. From this point on, a story about madness and obsession becomes, also, a story about doubles and identity.

Czuchlewski can write -- the momentum he sustains is impressive, and there are some nice lines in here. But the need to impress, to dazzle, to tackle the big questions for which he can't possibly begin to provide the answers, undermines what might have been an elegant little thriller. Reportedly, Czuchlewski is already at work on his second novel. Readers of The Muse Asylum can only hope he finds a way to combine a taste for postmodern playfulness with the sort of engagement with life in all its messiness and variety that his chosen profession demands of him. *

Todd Kliman teaches English at Howard University and is at work on a novel, "Martyrs."