MARK AXELROD IS ONE of the most fascinating and stylistically as well as conceptually most innovative contemporary American fiction writers. Luisa Valenzuela labels him "a different voice in North American writing" with "a very special, poignant sense of humor." Already known to WLT readers for the novels Bombay California (1994; see WLT 69:1, pp. 49-50) and Cardboard Castles (1996; see WLT 71:3, p. 599), he has also now completed his Castles Trilogy with the publication of Cloud Castles (1998) and the present novel, Capital Castles, subtitled "The Still Further Accounts of Duncan Katz in 140 Chapters Including a Patriotic Peroration, an Apostrophe, a Classic Culminating Cacoethes."
As a whole, the trilogy pays tribute to such great fabulists as Cervantes, Rabelais, and Machado de Assis, yet it also establishes itself as uniquely original and innovative. Axelrod narrates an incredible journey: each novel takes as its point of departure a different city in which the main character, Duncan Katz (Duncan, a regal name; Katz, an acronym of kohen tzedek or "priest of righteousness" [Psalms 132:9]) -- part German, part Brazilian, all Jewish -- looks for a kind of poetics of space which he can nowhere find. Cardboard Castles begins in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moves to France, then Israel; Cloud Castles begins in Haifa and moves to Germany, Italy, and Brazil. In the third installment, we finally return again to the United States.
The structures of the novels are fundamentally the same, with over 100 "chapters" in each that range in length from three lines to thirty pages. All contain tables of contents (an accouterment which falsely gives the impression that the book can be read in any sequence) and are replete with such visual-verbal effects as musical notes, resumes, physical-exam charts, crossword puzzles, multiple-choice quizzes, menus, copies of historical documents, letters, cafe receipts, recipes, excerpts from newspapers, wedding invitations, Braille charts, sign language, commodity-futures prices, graffiti found on bathroom walls, et cetera. In short, these novels are filled a variety of discourses, all of which significantly alter a reader's sensibilities of what constitutes a novel.
The supporting characters in the trilogy are as diverse as the structures of the novels themselves. Duncan Katz associates with such characters as Jean-Christophe, a homosexual gardener who becomes famous for his metaphysical treatise titled Meliora Speramus; Hadara Halevi, Katz's lover and an Israeli spy, who becomes his wife; Giovanni Roman-ziere, a juggling deaf gardener; Monsieur Meursault, the maitre d' of Nuremberg's oldest restaurant; Werther and his sorrows; Dr. Italo Lascivo, the randy cosmo-musicologico-physician; Jefferson's slave and concubine Sally Hemings and her brother, the true author of the Declaration of Independence, Vasiariah Hemings; a blind Chicago bus driver, T. R. Esias; the phlegmatic Grand Interpreter; and, of course, "Death," whom Katz first meets while the two of them are sunbathing on the French Riviera and who visits him with regularity throughout the trilogy and, on occasion, saves his life.
"The original idea for the trilogy came in 2982 while I was on a Camargo Foundation Fellowship in Cassis, France," Axelrod explained to me recently. "During a night fraught with insomnia, indigestion, and jet lag, I had an epiphany: what am I doing here and why am I constantly traveling? At that point, Cardboard Castles was born, and I actually completed it in 1983 (published in 1996), followed by Cloud Castles in 1985 (published 1998), and, finally, Capital Castles in 1987 (published 2000). However, they have all undergone extensive rewrites since then, and each of them incorporates certain items from the years 1987-2000 that I found germane to the respective novels.
"Clearly, one of the things that anointed the process was my early reading of Machado de Assis's novels and admiring his unique ability to mix narrative precision and black comedy, artistry and imagination into his work. Likewise, I found there was little in the way of political or social commentary being written in contemporary fiction at the time, at least the kind of fiction that was being published in the United States. Representation? Yes. Irony? On occasion. Experiment? Rarely. Sociopolitical consciousness? Not really. It was the beginning of the Reagan Epoch, an epoch that was fundamentally grounded on a rather uncircumspect need to understand one's place in the order of things and which, in large measure, continues to the present day.
"In inventing the character of Duncan Katz, who, by virtue of being a U.S. citizen, but one who is also half German, half Brazilian, and all Jewish, I discovered someone who did not belong to any one particular culture ... or place. And since he was constantly in search of a place, befriended by deaf, dumb, and dead characters, he became a kind of diasporic character who, because of his rootlessness, could be allowed to roam the world, to observe at will, and to misbehave accordingly.
"In short, I wanted to write a series of novels in which I could coalesce irony, black comedy, and sociopolitical commentary with unconventional approaches to novel construction and character development that would undermine a kind of deterministic reader response. In a way, I consider the trilogy to be simply a kind of Novel Lampistery: tiny lamps that shed different light in a different way." And so be it!
Giose Rimanelli SUNY, Albany
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2001|
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