An Autobiographical Trip through Kavalier and Clay

June 30, 2010 at 10:59 am (Reflection) ()

I have a theory about fiction. It started as a theory about Pixar movies, but I’ve since expanded it to encompass all published fiction in all media. And that theory is this: every piece of fiction is uniquely attuned to certain people, in specific ways that do not apply more broadly.

This isn’t to say that other people can’t enjoy fiction that isn’t attuned to them. Millions of people loved Wall-E. But Wall-E wasn’t specifically attuned to millions of people. It was made for people like my friend Anika, who loves robot romances and environmentalism, and my friend Becky, who loves dystopian post-apocalyptic futures and Hello, Dolly. My friends’ specific and seemingly-random combinations of interests brought them extra joy as they watched Wall-E, even as millions of other moviegoers had a perfectly fine time enjoying the animation and the love story and the socially conscious fable. Wall-E was made for everyone, but it was especially made for Anika and Becky.

So when I say that Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was made for me, I’m not denying its universal appeal. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, after all. Many, many people love it, and deservedly so. But my own unique combination of interests and hobbies and fascinations were so well-represented in the novel that I can’t, at this moment, imagine a piece of fiction more closely attuned to me, specifically.

When I was in elementary school, I discovered stage magic. I don’t know what came first — watching magic specials on television, or seeing a box of tricks in a store. Most likely I first learned about magic from a clown or puppet show at a birthday party or community event. But whatever the impetus, I became absolutely fascinated with stage magic, and decided I would be a magician when I grew up. I bought myself a plastic top hat and wand and a dozen pre-packaged tricks to learn, wore my hand-me-down, poufy-sleeved, black “David Copperfield” blouse, and performed magic for anyone who would stand still long enough. When I attended a week-long Girl Scout summer camp with a talent show theme, I eschewed the singing and dancing and piano-playing of my peers and instead performed my tricks for the audience of parents who gathered for our end-of-camp talent spectacular. By the end of elementary school I’d mostly left magic behind, having realized I lacked most of the things necessary for a stage magician (like grace and speed and charisma and a good poker face), but bits of my fascination remain.

In fourth grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank for a talented and gifted extra-curricular class. It was the first time I’d ever heard about the Holocaust, and I found myself both horrified and fascinated. I became passionate about learning all I could, in the hopes that I could pass on my knowledge to others and promote a more accepting world that wouldn’t forget the weight of our sad history. I read every bit of Holocaust memoir and fiction I could get my hands on, including The Devil in Vienna, an epistolary novel about two best friends (one Jewish, one the daughter of a Nazi) torn apart by the war, which remains one of my favorite books to this day. My interest in that period of history — indeed, in the entire World War II era, worldwide — never faded, and later experiences (a visit to a concentration camp during a summer trip to Europe, a college course on texts and images of the Holocaust) only deepened my knowledge and fascination.

Fourth grade was also significant as the year I fell in love with New York City. I grew up in central New Jersey, in a commuter town with a view of New York across the bay on clear days, but, since my parents were diehard suburbanites who hated the city, it may as well have been across the country. It took plenty of begging and pleading for me to convince my parents to let me visit the city, and finally, after I sacrificed a tenth birthday party in exchange, my parents drove me into New York to see my first Broadway show, Cats. It was all downhill from there. Over the years I became more and more interested in Broadway, and thus had more and more reason to enter the city; meanwhile, I fell in love with fiction that took place in New York, from the movie Newsies to Broadway’s RENT. Even as repeated visits made New York more and more real to me (to the point where, now, I often do nothing more in the city than sit in diners and Starbucks with friends all day), it remained a magical, magnetic attraction, the site of all my fantasies and the setting of all my most beloved stories.

In seventh grade, I read Hatchet, the classic middle grades novel about one boy’s survival in the wilderness following a plane crash. This is the moment I most clearly remember developing a strong interest in survival stories, the stories of unprepared individuals trying to survive in harsh conditions without modern comforts. But perhaps that interest had always been there, from the Dear America and American Girl books about surviving on the prairie, middle school games of Oregon Trail, and that Baby-Sitters Club Super Special where they got stranded on a desert island off the coast of Connecticut. Either way, I knew at that moment that I would always love survival stories, and I actively sought them out in other fiction.

Toward the end of eighth grade, my friend Nick came out of the closet. Over the next few years, almost all of my male friends (of which I had quite a few) followed suit, as did a number of my female friends. As a result, I found myself very involved in the gay rights movement — or as involved as a teenager can be. I helped my friends organize observances of the Day of Silence, launched a gay-straight alliance (which, sadly, was mostly a failure), and wrote articles for the school newspaper about the importance of gay rights legislation. My activism carried through college, where I was a member of the Pride Alliance, and continues to this day; if someone were to call me a single-issue voter, gay rights would be that issue. And in the course of all this activism, I realized how important it is for fictional worlds to be populated with gay characters, characters my friends might identify with. I began to read tons of gay fiction, actively yearning and campaigning for more gay characters in more mainstream media, while also reading up on the history of the gay rights movement, becoming particularly intrigued by pre-Stonewall gay lives. (In college, I took a much-beloved class on the American 1950s, and my final paper addressed the topic of gay lives in 1950s America, particularly in the suburbs.)

Finally, in the middle of college, I discovered comic books. And what started as a passing interest soon turned into a life-changing, all-consuming obsession. I fell in love with Captain America, and wound up writing my undergrad senior thesis about his cultural impact. I made dozens of new friends, some of whom are among my best friends, and began blogging, becoming a part of the comic book community. And eventually, I realized that studying comics — alongside other media — was something I wanted to make a career out of. I applied to grad school in media and cultural studies, and I’ll be heading there in a little over a month to start a PhD program. Though I don’t have any real desire to make comics myself, I’m fascinated by both the craft and the cultural impact of the books, and I love learning about the history of the medium and talking to creators about their work. Though I’ve only been reading comics for four years now, I’m quite content with my plan to devote much of my life to studying them.

So when I read a book in which the New York setting is almost a character unto itself, featuring as protagonists a magician character threatened by the Holocaust and a gay character threatened by homophobia, who together create comic books during World War II about a superhero similar to Captain America, and who later must survive an Antarctic wilderness and 1950s comformist suburbia, respectively, is it any wonder I would come away from the story thinking “this book, this was written just for me”? With The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon has written my Wall-E, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful.

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