A Brilliant Novel in the Works
By Yuvi Zalkow
First Published: 2012
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Literature, Semi-Autobiography
A Brilliant Novel in the Works is an entertaining debut novel or, perhaps more accurately, “anti-novel” from Yuvi Zalkow. This work mixes autobiography and fiction into a novel about a young Jewish short story writer named Yuvi who received an advance to write his first novel but runs into serious writer’s block at the prospect. As he struggles to adapt to the novel form of writing he gets strict advice from his editor on the basic rules for writing novels and proceeds to break every rule and then some. The result includes a mixture of quirky character studies, reflections on childhood, obsessions with guilt, dealings with family issues, and bits of humor throughout.
The opening sentence of A Brilliant Novel in the Works encapsulates the essence of this novel better than I could in a full page description. The novel starts with, “When my wife comes into the room and sees me in my underwear, with my $30 Lamy pen in my fist, and standing on my desk, she isn’t terribly impressed with me and my work habits.” Right off the bat, this sentence establishes the all-encompassing struggle the writer is engaged in and also highlights his self-deprecating humor. If this sentence piques your interest, you’ll want to read this novel. If not, you would do well to look elsewhere.
A Brilliant Novel in the Works is told in first person by Yuvi who obsesses about writer’s block, his relationship with his wife, and his constant feelings of guilt about anything and everything dating back to his childhood memories. The childhood based feelings of guilt by Jews has been done many times before but Yuvi still manages to come up with a few new angles. Yuvi also has even more serious issues with regards to his relationship with his wife. They seem to be drifting apart caused, at least in part, by the fact that Yuvi seems to have lost the ability to be physically intimate with his wife. Instead of the basic sex that she prefers, he is only interested in getting spanked.
The other main characters in the novel are Yuvi’s brother in-law and his girlfriend and her daughter. Yuvi’s brother in-law has serious intestinal problems which provide a source for many discussions and thoughts about poop and illness.
With a cast of weird characters who get into weird situations in a city known for its weirdness, Portland Oregon, you get a novel that seems completely authentic. As a reader, it’s only natural to wonder how much of the story is based on fact and how much is fiction. On his website, Yuvi Zalkow has a video about the writing of this novel which confirms that the novel was based on the advice Yuvi received from a real editor but does not confirm the more intimate details of the writer’s life or his relatives.
The best parts of this novel are the characters and their relationships. Yuvi describes his own thoughts and feelings with great intensity and he also makes insightful observations about the people closest to him. He constantly analyzes his own thoughts and actions which often adds more feelings of guilt when he recognizes inappropriate thoughts.
I have to give credit to Yuvi for his innovative solution to dealing with the difficulties he encounters with adapting to the normal conventions of novel writing. Instead of following the conventional advice, he creates a novel out of his writing struggles using scenes and reflections that are tied together loosely at best and include all the subjects his editor forbids. In this manner, Yuvi describes his convoluted quest to write something worthwhile and to find meaning in his life and relationships. Instead of shying away from uncomfortable subjects, he dives right in with all the intimate details of his insecurities, sexual issues, and relationships.
Yuvi’s editor also says he should include a death in his novel which Yuvi resists. However, (mild spoiler alert) Yuvi eventually follows his editor’s advice in this case, and only in this case, in what ends up being the most disappointing aspect of the novel from my perspective. The disappointment comes from the manner of death which is so absurd as to suck any emotion out the situation.
A Brilliant Novel in the Works provides an entertaining and humorous look at a writer’s struggles with writing, his relationships, and the meaning of life. While this “novel” seems at times to only be a mixture of connected essays, it has some good emotional punches that will resonate with most readers. For those that like to read about writers, this is a must read title and for anyone who is interested in reading about real people struggling in a real world where truth is often weirder than fiction, A Brilliant Novel in the Works is highly recommended.