Cardboard Castles

Synopsis

from Cardboard Castles

It would be easy to discard the encomium "an innovative writer" as being an overworked phrase, clichéd even; but in Axelrod’s case, that’s not so. After publishing the "feature novel" Bombay California, one might have thought there would be little else one could do with the novel. Though Cardboard Castles does pay homage to the fathers of the modern text (Quevedo, Cervantes, Rabelais, Machado de Assis), Axelrod also establishes himself as innovative in ways unlike the novels of other postmodern Latin American writers such as García Márquez, Cortázar, Márcio Souza and Borges, the latter of whom Axelrod knew personally. 
Axelrod slowly dismembers the architectonics of the 19th century "realistic" novel (which continues today under labored breathing) and buries it, albeit with civility and grace, in the archives of what the French structuralist critic Alain Vieux-Sottise has called "the labyrinth of long ago." It’s difficult to approach Axelrod’s novel (which it surely is) without discussing a bit of its structure. The novel is divided into 130 chapters, which range in length from three lines to thirty pages; it includes a table of contents (an accoutrement that falsely gives the impression that the book can be read at any part); and is replete with visual effects such as: musical notes, résumés, physical exam charts, crossword puzzles, multiple choice exams, and typographic alterations which would have made Joyce envious, all of which significantly alter, if not bombard, the reader’s sensibilities of what constitutes a novel.

 

Excerpt

from Cardboard Castles

I’m a writer. Always knew I would be. So did my father. He discovered that when I was two-years old, when he found me esconced in a corner of his study, crumpling pages of a First Edition of Rilke’s Elegies (of which there were few remaining copies) and stuffing them into my mouth. He knew. Probably knew too well. By four, I had eaten all of his Bacon and, taking the philosophist at his word, had consumed most of my father’s Byron, Keats and Shelley. At six, Balzac was depleted, except for the Droll Stories for which, at that time, I had no taste, and by the time I had reached twelve I had polished off most everything palatable in the way of l9th-century French letters with the obvious exception of Eugene Sue.

For my Bar Mitzvah, I ate Hardy with an antipasto of Manzoni and Vittorini, a calzone of Buzzati and Pavese and a dessert of Gadda and Joyce and Beckett; by fourteen I had finished everything from Cervantes through Petrarch. At fifteen, I was just beginning to nibble on the Russians, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol, when my father, fearing I would deplete the rest of Germany and all of South America (See Chapter titled A Bit About the Author), finally decided to give me pen and paper of my own. But by the time he got around to it I was sixteen and most of his library was bindless if not bereft of pages. Not wanting to hurt his feelings I thanked him for his gifts of ink and vellum by returning the uneaten portions of Hamsun, Ibsen and Strindberg, and a not-too-badly chewed copy of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Sighing as deeply as a sigh could be sighed without exhausting one’s life, he was sadly relieved.

By the time I was twenty-five I had written ten novels, eight plays, dozens of short stories, and scores of poems, but because of my tender age and overwrought modesty, I published under such noms de plume as Eliot, Poe, Pound, Pushkin and Pasternak among others. My words were highly successful, well-reviewed, and paid my way through college and several years thereafter even though I never won an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship writing under any of those names. But then disaster struck.

Shortly before quitting graduate school, my true identity was discovered, due to some ludicrous investigative article written by a student-journalist named Bernstein, and I was forced to use my own name from that moment on…D.J. (Duncan Joaquim) Katz. That unearthing, of course, was truly unfortunate since I had gathered such a large reading audience and had made such a comfortable living by using the names of other writers, well, I wasn’t sure if anyone would buy anything of mine. So I tried writing my own stuff. Original stuff. Novels. But as fate would have it I didn’t have much success. As a matter of fact, the following letter from a New York agent (who, out of pity, eventually decided to take me on) will give you an indication of how badly my career had turned.

WITTY…STOP…CLEVER
…STOP …BUT TOO ECCENTRIC …STOP … SHOULD BE WRITTEN AT A LATER AGE … STOP … PREFERABLY IN YOUR SIXTIES … STOP…WHEN YOU’VE ESTABLISHED YOURSELF … STOP …AS A WRITER … STOP … CARRY ON …STOP.

REGARDS,

SADIE LIPSCHITZ

My sixties! When the pale light pales the opaque window! When the ebb has lost itself beneath the curl! My sixties! The news was disarming. At first, I thought about retreating to my bedroom and nibbling on some wholesome pages of German Weltschmerz, something salivating and depressing. The Sorrows of Young Werther usually tasted good at those times or a bit of Heine accompanied by a demi-tone of Mahler. Instead, I settled for some guava nectar, straight up, and pouted for awhile staring at some melancholic reprints by Edvard Munch.

As you might imagine, it was a tremendous letdown to have been published extensively under my kleptonyms only to find rejection for D.J. Katz. Damn Bernstein ruined my career. It just goes to show, I said to myself, staring out of a broken window mended with strips of masking tape, it just goes to show that more often than not the name is judged instead of the work, that the sign is accepted as the symbol, that the "bottom line" is who you are and not what you’ve written.

At that time I began to wonder seriously who I was. I mean, when I wrote under someone else’s name I was secure and security bred confidence. But now, that is then, I was alone. Just me, Duncan Katz against all those people out there. All those faceless, nameless readers. That is, You. After an appropriate amount of self-imposed, self-disposed grieving, I came back to my artistic sensibilities. Modestly encouraged by Sadie’s suggestion to "carry on" I did so by gathering my remaining aplomb and began another novel.

For the first time I had discovered the pain of rejection and discovered I could deal with it. In the present. And the future. For surely they were on their way: rejections. They were being written now if only in someone’s head. By someone who may not even know me, but thinks s/he knows what is novel. But I could deal with them. It just took a minor deluge of perseverance and a major deluge of succourance from friends and loved ones. For if one believes that the truth is what must be written, then it’s to that end that one must be true. Besides, I said, staring into a cup staggered around the chipped edges with the grounds of bitter coffee, I’m a writer.