You know that feeling when you’re in the middle of a book and you’re enjoying it so much and you’re so into it that even when you’re not reading it you’re filled with a sense of purpose and excitement and comfort because you have that to go back to? This is what I felt reading Kavalier and Clay. I’ve finished it now and although I am quite sad to leave the characters I have loved for the last few days (weeks? It’s a long book), I am still lingering on that happy mood.
It’s not that it’s an amazingly cheerful book. It wasn’t the themes of the book that filled me with happiness. It did have its share of grief and regret and loss and abandonment, after all. It was more that I knew I had found a story I cared about, with people I wanted to know and worry for, and love even when they were being idiots. And that made me happy.
It’s about two cousins in New York, who are in their late teens when the story starts, at the beginning of World War II. Joe Kavalier is a Jew who has left Prague, his hometown, in an extremely dangerous and adventurous fashion to escape Hitler’s persecution, and Sammy Clay (Klayman) is his cousin whom Joe meets when he arrives in Brooklyn. Now, Sammy is a wannabe writer with a head brimful of ideas and Joe is a talented artist who needs to raise a lot of money as soon as possible to save his family. Naturally, in the heyday of comic books and Superman, they team up to create a new kind of hero, The Escapist, who offers the hope of freedom “to all those who toil in the bonds of slavery and the shackles of oppression”. Basically, he fights Nazis.
The core of the story lies, for me, in the bond between the two cousins, the ease in which they both fall into each other’s charms and work to create something iconic and meaningful. Their magic was at its peak when they were together, feeding off each other’s ideas and enthusiasm. Separated, they drifted away. Together, they shone.
But of course, they all have their demons. For Joe it’s the sense of hopelessness and failure for not being able to do anything for his family, except saving all the money he makes. For Sam it’s the sense of inadequacy that always cripples him; it’s his lack of confidence and appreciation for what he’s brilliant at. And the understandable reluctance at admitting his sexuality even to himself.
I liked both cousins individually and as a pair, but I absolutely ADORE Sammy. Joe is handsome and skilful and broody and confident, but Sammy completely won me over with his awkwardness, his unease in social situations, his big heart and his big emotions, his inherent fragility that made me want to protect him from the evils of the worlds and deliver him to a safe haven of loving care with Tracy Bacon wrapped in a bow for him to enjoy without guilt or shame.
When the THING happens (as there’s always a THING at some point), everything goes to shit. They all make crappy decisions, more shitty things happen and then some more, until I was like will these people be ever happy again and will I ever stop being angry at their nonsensical behaviour. OK, I was mostly angry at Joe, but Sammy also kinda screwed up at some point, even though I tend to be more lenient with his decision.
To my surprise, I did forgive Joe eventually and I did recover some hope for these two and for Rosa. Because yes, there’s also a Rosa, the only main female character worth mentioning (forget about the Bechdel test, just don’t even think about it), whom I did quite like eventually, when she managed to become her own character, and not just a love interest. But she had so much more potential. So Much More. Sigh.