It’s 1:45 a.m. and after four months of reading, I’ve just finished “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” In about 12 hours, I’ll be on a plane back to Duke, but right now my mother’s house is quiet and the Christmas tree is still up, warming the room, the light of one hundred little bulbs refracted off the glass ornaments.
At 636 pages, the Michael Chabon novel should not have taken me so long to read. All the way back in August, a day or two before classes began, after I’d just spent the spring semester working in Atlanta, I sat on a bench under one of those magnolia trees in Duke Gardens and began “Adventures.”
Perhaps I’m just rationalizing my poor reading habits, but I suspect that, after spending the previous eight months with family and old friends, the novel’s thoroughly rendered characters — Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay and Rosa Saks — felt like the members of a small community I could be comfortable in. As I found my footing at Duke again, “Adventures” became a sort of security blanket with Chabon’s sentences as its fine threads. In between starting the book and finishing it, I read John Updike and Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith, all the while slowly savoring and re-reading “Adventures.”
And then, with maybe 100 pages to go, I came home for winter break. I caught up with real-life friends; all of us sat around in a basement, drinking wine and talking over the events of the previous semester, and then, emboldened by a slight buzz, reminisced about high school — those memories as murky as they’ve ever been. So much of what we said revolved around the future. Talk of internships, graduate school and majors congealed in the space between us and thickened the air with nervous expectation.
In the universe of “Adventures,” things unfold the way they do for a reason. Old friends and loves don’t go away but instead circle back through unexpected and inexorable means. To observe a handful of fictional lives unfold over more than a decade is to draw inevitable connections between discrete events — to the characters living in those moments, they mean nothing; to the reader they’re everything. And, of course, it helps that a rigorous exploration of themes and character requires a novelist to play the long game and sprinkle in motifs.
One of the things I most enjoy about reading Chabon is his arrant mastery of plot. In the breadth of the novel, he sees the possibility of slowly constructing, piece by piece, some grand, sweeping portrait of a place. The finely detailed threads wind together until at the end of a chapter — or after a couple chapters — the rope is pulled tight and suddenly the whole becomes clear. He formulates the kind of payoffs and resolutions that are so graceful, they make your chest warm with satisfaction.
I suspect that if my old friends or I were to read the stories of our lives without any regard for our personal stakes in the outcomes, there would be plenty of apparent motifs. That, however, doesn’t make the future any less uncertain or nerve-wracking. The distance afforded by reading about life as it happens to someone else is comforting — you feel for fictional characters only when you want to. To experience it yourself, with other real people, is harder, and the ends of things are more difficult to discern.
Last night, my friend came over for dinner, and we went for a drive. Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” played lightly over the car speakers, and she directed me toward some place I had never been. We drove past the grocery store where my classmates used to shoplift candy bars and cigarettes, then past the park where we once built fires and talked about girls. She told me to turn into a neighborhood and I did, and as we winded up a long incline, she said, “Don’t look in the rearview mirror until we get to the top.”
When we reached the apex, I circled the cul-de-sac and parked. There was the Atlanta skyline, glittering with industrial blues and reds and silvers. I felt far away from the city and the professional aspirations it has come to symbolize for me. I felt uncertain about the future in that metropolitan glimmer, but also warm and contented. The person in my passenger’s seat — someone who I’d fallen out of touch with for a year or two — was there again, her hand comfortable in mine.
As an end to the chapter that was winter break, I couldn’t have hoped for a better payoff.
Jake Parker is a Trinity junior and a Recess staff writer.
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