Book Break: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

A couple years back, I recommended to my boss the book Carter Beats the Devil (which may be magically transformed into a movie at some point in the future), and she loaned me, in return, her copy of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I told her at the time that it would take me a long while to get to it. I was right; I just finished it today. It’s the story of two Jewish cousins – one escaping Czechoslovakia ahead of his family; the other escaping a crippled and fatherless existence in Brooklyn – who break into the fledgling comic book business in the run-up to World War II. As soon as I cracked it, I could see the parallels with Carter. I knew I was going to love it.

As it turns out, I loved most of it. About 85 percent of the book was engaging, compelling, genius fiction. The other 15 percent left me scratching my head, picking through my own thoughts and prejudices (a good thing), and coming away with the conclusion that certain parts just didn’t add up (not so good).

Two aspects of the story stuck out like sore thumbs to me. First, one of the themes of the story is the conflict within one the characters concerning the possibility that he may be homosexual. The possibility is hinted at early in the book, and is actually presented in an interesting and thoughtful way, subtly showing his inner conflict, particularly since, at that time, a young gay man might not only be harassed and bullied, but arrested or publicly interrogated and humiliated by government officials. Toward the end of the book, we see this character realize that he has never fully dealt with this conflict, but has instead spent his life pretending that there is nothing to see here. Regardless of your feelings and beliefs about homosexuality, the unresolved turmoil of a lifetime spent going through the motions and consciously not dealing with the central problem of one’s existence is tragic, and overall, this thread ties in with themes of escape and rescue and hope that pervade the book.

However, in the middle of the book, a fair amount of time is spent on a key relationship with another gay character. Parts of this were well written, even if, as another (surprisingly sympathetic) character suggests near the end of the book, “I don’t cotton very well to these proclivities” – but given the nature of this particular protagonist and his internal conflict, I was never convinced he would have been attracted to such a handsome dingbat. Later, details and situations emerge that were particularly strange (to me, at least) and unsavory (for the protagonist). It seemed to me that this section was written with less context and introspection than the rest of the book (though I supposed it is possible that since I haven’t lived through it, I simply didn’t get it). I never grasped the character’s motivations; as a result, these few sentences and paragraphs struck me as the author attempting to illustrate “gayness” – conveying “this is gay and strange,” “this is gay and funny,” “this is gay and tragic,” rather than simply this is strange, funny, or tragic. For me, this section backfired: what I’m sure was meant to make us see this character in a sympathetic light seemed stereotypical and made me instead wonder, “What the heck is he doing? He should trust his gut – gay or not, he doesn’t belong here!”

My other objection was in the portrayal of the other protagonist’s sexuality, which was decidedly hetero. This individual is shown as a deeply emotional young man who (to our knowledge) has only loved one woman in his entire life. He is also shown, early in the book, taste-testing American cursing and slang. There is strong language scattered in bits and pieces throughout the book, including, on occasion, by this particular character – and in most cases, it fits the time, place, and situation. I was disturbed, however, to notice that, when this emotional young man who doesn’t quite understand the lingo thinks of his beloved, he does so in terms befitting a sailor. Both he, and the narrative, use abruptly vulgar terminology for anatomy and sexuality which, between two tender lovers, seemed to warrant more gentle and affectionate treatment.

I am not reflexively prudish about cursing or sexuality in books, and I have used my share of foul language – in fact, in college, I may have used up my share. But I remember, in a college psychology class, reading a study that purportedly showed that use of obscenity for emphasis when making an argument was ineffective. I’m not sure I disagree with the conclusion, but I recall perceiving a flaw in the experiment – namely, that the words chosen for “emphasis” were words and phrases that I rarely if ever heard an adult use, even in anger. They were over-the-top, the kind of thing that would shock a person to hear; it didn’t seem realistic that people would use those words and phrases in any reasonable context. Similar to the objections above, the instances in which the author chose to use obscenity to describe objects of affection seemed to me like overly intentional doses of “realism” – grit, in situations in which grit could only cause discomfort.

I spend time laying out these objections because these areas stuck out to me as inconsistent and bothersome additions to an otherwise cohesive and beautiful book. I laughed out loud at times, choked up at others, and found much inspiration for my own writing. I do not recommend it without reservation, but if my PG-descriptions of my R-rated objections above do not scare you off, I do recommend it.

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