Voltaire Surfed

Long Beach's mini renaissance of letters is proceeding apace, with Alice Sebold's huge best-seller The Lovely Bones followed by two exciting short-story debuts—Suzanne Greenberg's Speed-Walk and Other Stories and Alan Rifkin's Signal Hill (both reviewed here lately). Now there's Lisa Glatt's L.B.-based novel A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, which appeared recently with reviews in The New York Times in an impressive marketing push. So they're covered.

Time, then, to shift attention to an OC local with new work, Mark Axelrod. A postmodern fictionist and professor of English at Chapman, Axelrod has labored for a couple of decades in the trenches of the avant-garde, mostly under the cultural radar that has celebrated his fellow experimentalists Raymond Federman and Ronald Sukenick. Axelrod's latest book, Borges' Travel, Hemingway's Garage, is, like many a Saturday Night Live sketch, boldly funny in conception, a little lame and unimaginative in the execution. The book takes the form of 45 short fictions that take off on the promising idea that business establishments and products with names like Rembrandt's Toothpaste, Kafka's Caf or those noted in the title—real businesses and products (photos are provided for our amusement)—haven't been just named after artists but were actually started by them.

It's amusing to imagine Borges opening a travel agency (especially in Tustin) or Hemingway running a car-repair shop (especially in Santa Ana), and most of the fictions narrate the tortuous path that led such artists to birth such odd commercial ventures.

Along the way, Axelrod does some decent parody—his piece on James Joyce's Irish Pub (in Brussels) is written in impressive Finnegans Wake-ese—and he comes up with a few ideas worthy of the intellectual parodies Woody Allen collected in books such as Without Feathers. Like Axelrod's riff on a Cafe Voltaire in Ventura: “It was during his trip to England (1726-9) where [Voltaire] met, among others, Bolingbroke, Congreve, Pope, the Walpoles, and from the United States, Moxley Turnbull, a world-class surfer and first winner of the Duke Kahanamoku surfing competition in Hawaii. It was Turnbull who suggested to Voltaire that he think about buying property in America, specifically on the West Coast. In case things got 'too hot,' Moxley suggested, 'you could chill out on the coast.'”

But on the whole, the book disappoints, mostly because the fictions turn too often on the stale idea of the need for writers “looking for other means to earn income” or to “diversify their portfolio.”

The book's title practically advertises itself as an extended comic meditation on the ways capital co-opts the cultural cachet of high artists, but Borges' Travel, Hemingway's Garage barely considers the implications of the idea and even misses the chance to exploit some ready-made comic material. Axelrod writes a piece on “Beckett's Government Surplus,” a store in Norwich, England, but instead of taking up the patent hilariousness of having “Beckett”—the granddaddy of all minimalism—and “Surplus” in the same sentence, he goes in for stylistic parody instead, and even then comes off sounding more like Gertrude Stein than Beckett.

Borges' Travel, Hemingway's Garage by Mark Axelrod; Fiction Collective 2 (fc2.org). Paperback, 175 pages, $13.95.

One Reply to “Voltaire Surfed”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *