davidd (davidd) wrote,

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: Ep. 1, Pretentious Vocabulary & Fun Facts

I ran across "cathected" last night in the novel I'm reading, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. The author used it in the phrase, "cathected young women." I couldn't find this word in my unabridged dictionary, so I looked it up online. "Cathect," which means a strong emotional investment, is actually a verb form of "cathexis," (which isn't in my dictionary either... I need to get a better dictionary!). The adjective form of cathect is "cathectic," not "cathected." Thus, "cathectic young women.'

I find it grating when authors try to sound all literary and stuff by using obscure vocabulary. When they're not even using their thesaurus-based vocabulary words correctly, I just wanna slap 'em! Smug, pretentious jerks!

On top of which, this guy can't do math: this author was talking about a freezing cold river being "22.2 degrees Celsius." I thought maybe it was a typo, but then he spelled it out in words: "twenty-two degrees Celsius." That equates to about 72 degrees Fahrenheit... about as warm as the water in Hawaii!

Further... as you know by now, I'm somewhat cathected by pretentious vocabulary and simple factual errors in fiction novels, so I'm going to keep hammering on this, but I'll spare you with a cut... the cold water episode of the story takes place in the mid-1930s. To the best of my understanding, the characters would have measured the temperature on the centigrade scale. Yes, centigrade is the same as Celsius, except, the term Celsius was not adopted for this scale until the late 1940s. Even today, some sixty years later, centigrade has yet to be entirely replaced by Celsius. In 1930-something, they would have said "centigrade."

The twenty-two degrees thing reminds me of the forty kilometers per liter remark about the smartcar's fuel economy in The Da Vinci Code. These writer-types are bad with math. And they have a tough time with the metric system.

A point to bear in mind when reading fiction, I suppose, is that it's fiction! These are made-up stories! I know readers who are invariably impressed with the details and "facts" they encounter when reading fiction. I'm coming to understand just how inaccurate those "facts" embedded in fiction are likely to be. In Chabon's case, he kept his encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) close at hand, so when he needed a train detail he could mention a "Josef Stalin-class locomotive" (which he describes as "big," which is true, with 71-inch drivers (wheels), altho' not as large as the 2-8-4 types built for North American railroads... ain't the internet great?), or he could casually mention the political leanings of German film actors like Emil Jannings, or describe in detail the fabric used in a man's suit, all of which add "color and texture" to the story. But... who knows if the details are really accurate? I mean, if the author tells me that 22-degrees Celsius is cold -- well, it's true that, living in Hawaii, I have been known to put on a sweater when the mercury dips to 22˚C, so perhaps what I'm supposed to infer from the passage is that Czechoslovakia is a tropical country! Huh, I didn't know that!

Does it really matter if the "facts" in the story are entirely accurate? The veracity of the facts is kind of like the color of the candy shell on an M&M. They all taste pretty much the same no matter the color. Except for the red ones. The red ones taste kind of bitter to me. I guess the facts that stand out as being wrong would be the red M&Ms. The other colors indicate varying degrees of truthfulness, and like the variety of candies in a package, the variety of facts the author presents serves to add color to the story. It's not meant to be a textbook.

I'm enjoying the story, although sometimes I feel the author gets bogged down in showing how smart he is or how much research he's done by tossing around names and facts and Trivial Pursuit details. It helps that I know a little about, well, locomotives, for one thing; and golems, and old hearses, and acromegaly, and a bit about the history of comic books. The story is about two guys going into the comic book biz, and sometimes the author goes on a riff, casually throwing around the names of comic book writers and illustrators. It's been useful so far that I have not had to look up too many names to know what he's talking about. Who'd have thought it would be useful someday to be able to identify Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, George Herriman, or Elzie Segar? And Chester Gould! Ol' Chet's been mentioned several times already.

Reading Kavalier & Clay reminds me of reading Doctorow's Ragtime. That is, it's helpful to know a few things about early-20th century pop culture. In the case of Kavalier & Clay, you really need to know what Dick Tracy looks like, or you're gonna miss a lot. It's an entertaining read so far, mostly because I'm into the subject; but the print is very small, and there are almost 650 pages. I'm only on Chapter 2 of Part II.

Oh, parturition is another term for childbirth. I probably should have known that. I do now. Parturition, cathectic, and the wheel configuration of a Stalin-class steam locomotive: reading does make one smarter!

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