I took a while to make up my mind whether I should review Empire of Light, the second literary novel from David Czuchlewski. Not the novel itself, it was the symbolism that made me waver. Czuchlewski's first novel, The Muse Asylum, was one of the first books I reviewed when I took on this column back in 2001. A sort of existential mystery, that novel to me ranked among the top books of the year and remains one of my favorites. Here is the catch: to review Empire of Light would make Czuchlewski the first author I have critiqued twice in my column. I think that, by itself, says something about the quality of his craft.
Czuchlewski has an uncanny knack for drawing the reader into his tangled, perplexing stories as if he were writing Grishamesque pop novels. At the same time, however, he refuses to sacrifice the greater concepts, images, and thought-provoking meditations that lurk off in the shadows somewhere beyond the plot. He does that exceptionally well in Empire of Light, creating at once both a contemporary Hesse-like novel about the nature of spirituality in modern times and a psychological thriller that keeps the pages turning. He does this not by drawing a narrative line from beginning to end but by weaving a complex web hard to fathom all at once. All the greatest writers have been web-weavers, and Czuchlewski certainly has that gift as well.
The story in Empire of Light revolves around Matthew and Anna, two relatively young people with holes inside they have not yet figured out how to fill. Like so many people their age in modern times — or really going back to the college and post-college days of Gen-Xers like me — both search for something to fill that hole, and they begin by searching in the wrong places: Anna with drink, Matthew with Anna. Anna, however, soon joins a cult-like order of the Catholic church called the Empire of Light. Whether they are in fact a cult or a bona fide religious organization intent on doing good work carries the plot, lingering as part of the mystery. Most of the story involves Matthew's efforts to "rescue" Anna from the Empire of Light, and in turn, Anna's efforts to convert him to its very strict belief systems which may or may not involve drugs, spies, imprisonment, and blackmail, depending on who Matthew asks.
That covers the basic plot in brief. However, the true power of this story has more to do with how this situation and the many unusual circumstances surrounding it force Matthew to look inside himself, to learn more about his place in the world, and his family's history and beliefs as well. Because of these things, this novel too is an existential mystery like The Muse Asylum (Czuchlewski even sneaks in a clever reference to a character central from the earlier novel at one point). Empire of Lighthas the potential to inspire hours of contemplation for any reader brave enough to take ideas from the book and consider how they might apply to her own life, its holes, history and plan. The pages offer so much depth and desire for wisdom despite the fact that the novel itself reads relatively quickly (someone deeply caught up in the mystery aspect might finish it in a day). As such, it reminds me at times of the important works by Camus and Hesse — books that run out of words after a short burst of complete fascination with their more subtle insights coming to light only after the books themselves have come to rest on a shelf.
All the same, this novel is NOT The Muse Asylum. Czuchlewski, thankfully, does not take the modern tactic of rewriting a great first novel with new characters in a new scene. That bears some risk, however. To begin with, the story itself is not nearly as compelling as the earlier book. It drags on a bit in places and lacks that promise of something incredible waiting up ahead. Though it falls a little short in that aspect, it makes up for it by lingering in the mind much longer than The Muse Asylum after the first reading. The ideas it brings into play are important ones, ones worthy of the reader's time not only with book in hand but further into conscious hours, mostly like those hours spent alone and in a contemplative daze. I suspect this book could easily find a readership in college philosophy and religious studies courses as well as generally being a hit among confused but spiritually inclined college kids in search of answers to questions they may not have figured out just yet. In that way, it should appeal to readers of Hesse and Camus as I said earlier, but also perhaps to readers of spiritual fiction like The Dharma Bums, The Celestine Prophecy, anything by Paulho Coelho or perhaps the marvelous intellectual mysteries of Umberto Eco and Arturo Perez-Reverte. It literally could find a home on the shelves of folks with many different tastes.
Recommendation: Read it, think about it deeply, then read it again. It has the potential to appeal to an eclectic audience, and certainly to regular visitors to
The Adirondack Review. If you seem to like much of what we publish here at TAR, then you probably share our tastes and late-night meditations. This book is for you. Give it a go.