THE PROTAGONIST in Yuvi Zalkow's debut novel is named Yuvi Zalkow. And the novel is called A Brilliant Novel in the Works. The book basically operates within those two conceits. They're deep conceits, the kind that have the potential to illuminate not only the art of fiction, but the real world that imitates it. They also offer endless opportunities for brilliant but ephemeral, self-referential and self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing and just plain self-ish cleverness.
Yuvi Zalkow, at least the one in the novel, is a short, bald, impotent self-described neurotic Jew struggling to give his novel a coherent plot. (His attempts range from tangential memories of his father to escapist sci-fi stories.) His wife is supportive but frustrated, her brother is supportive but terminally ill, and Zalkow's editor is largely unsupportive and keeps telling him to kill a character.
A Brilliant Novel in the Works leans heavily on cleverness. The language has a unique way of tricking you into thinking something serious is funny, and vice versa. He can describe a worrisome S&M fetish in a hilarious deadpan voice and turn around to make a semi-sexual experience alone on horseback seem like a meaningful milestone. So yes, it's a deliriously clever book that insists on playing games on every page.
But the games, while fun, are a little predictable, and the rules too obvious. Zalkow keeps saying outright what's fiction and what's metafiction. He never uses the term, but that abominable prefix—meta—hangs over the entire story. The idea of a story actively being written by its narrator is not new. Most readers can wrap their head around it with little coaching, yet Zalkow reminds us almost on every page that he is both author and protagonist.
Metafiction on this level only achieves meaning through a subtle, dramatic irony. Yes, the smugness and confidence of a character writing his own story is immutable, but there must be yet another gap between that character and the author (and thereby, the reader). Unfortunately, in A Brilliant Novel the gaps between protagonist, narrator, and author seem all too small, and it lacks that crucial dramatic irony between the fictional Zalkow and the author Zalkow. Like the better Woody Allen comedies (an obvious touchstone for the novel), there is a tenderness to the love between Zalkow and his wife that repeatedly reminds you that there's an actual story with real characters here, it's just too often buried under the elaborate structure of the novel.