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Kavalier Attitude

January 19, 2012

Immediately after finishing Lolita I began reading a book that has doggedly pursued me for several years, practically begging for my attention. I was first told of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon not long after I arrived in Korea in 2005 and then heard from several people in subsequent years thereafter that it was a brilliant book that I would especially enjoy. They were right, obviously.

At the time of this writing, I have not finished reading the novel but I have been moved to comment on the extent to which I feel invested in the fate of one of the fictional characters from the title, Joe Kavalier. Perhaps it is the particular books I’ve read prior to this one, but I don’t recall caring so much about a character in a novel in quite some time. Of course, it helps that Humbert Humbert, as amusing and sophisticated as he was, was ultimately a total fucking dick. Before Lolita there was J.G. Ballard’s The Day of Creation, whose protagonist was laboring under a seething tropical psychosis for almost the entirety of the novel, and I wasted valuable reading time on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy last year, his characterization in particular being so crap as to increase with each passing day my shame at having been suckered by a trilogy of glorified airport novel shite.

For those unfamiliar with the Chabon’s novel, Joe Kavalier is a Jewish refugee who successfully escapes from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938 and arrives in New York to live with his cousin, Sam Clay. Together, Joe and Sam embark on careers as comic book creators in what was then a nascent medium swiftly gaining popularity with Joe being motivated to work particularly diligently in order to raise the necessary funds to facilitate his family’s escape from Prague. Now, it helps that I already have an interest in comic books, and have recently become something of a philosemite, but I find Joe Kavalier to be a  thoroughly sympathetic and noble protagonist that I’m fully engaged with. I’m really rooting for the kid. In a sense, it’s odd that I feel I know him better than people whom I’ve worked alongside for three years but, on the other hand, that has long been a common feature of novels; giving one full access to another mind, which can be hugely rewarding even though the mind is fictional. It’s the particular magic of literature that lavishes readers with an artificial intimacy greater than that afforded by everyday human interaction but an intimacy which is nonetheless also instantly and easily disposable. You can put the book down and go about your day, always having the choice of when to break the spell.

Incidentally, I highly recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s an exhilarating and brilliantly entertaining read.

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