With this brilliant novel, the bestselling author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys gives us an exhilarating triumph of language and invention, a stunning novel in which the tragicomic adventures of a couple of boy geniuses reveal much about what happened to America in the middle of the twentieth century. Like Phillip Roth's American Pastoral or Don DeLillo's Underworld, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a superb novel with epic sweep, spanning continents and eras, a masterwork by one of America's finest writers. It is New York City in 1939. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just pulled off his greatest feat to date: smuggling himself out of Nazi-occupied Prague. He is looking to make big money, fast, so that he can bring his family to freedom. His cousin, Brooklyn's own Sammy Clay, is looking for a collaborator to create the heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit the American dreamscape: the comic book. Out of their fantasies, fears, and dreams, Joe and Sammy weave the legend of that unforgettable champion the Escapist. And inspired by the beautiful and elusive Rosa Saks, a woman who will be linked to both men by powerful ties of desire, love, and shame, they create the otherworldly mistress of the night, Luna Moth. As the shadow of Hitler falls across Europe and the world, the Golden Age of comic books has begun. The brilliant writing that has led critics to compare Michael Chabon to John Cheever and Vladimir Nabokov is everywhere apparent in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Chabon writes "like a magical spider, effortlessly spinning out elaborate webs of words that ensnare the reader," wrote Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times about Wonder Boys-and here he has created, in Joe Kavalier, a hero for the century. Annotation. With this brilliant novel, the bestselling author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys gives us an exhilarating triumph of language and invention, a stunning novel in which the tragicomic adventures of a couple of boy geniuses reveal much about what happened to America in the middle of the twentieth century. Like Phillip Roth's American Pastoral or Don DeLillo's Underworld, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a superb novel with epic sweep, spanning continents and eras, a masterwork by one of America's finest writers.
In 1939, nineteen year old Josef Kavalier, artist, magician and Houdini-like escapist, smuggles himself out of Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia in a wooden coffin also occupied by the golem of Prague. He makes his way to New York City and his cousin Sammy Clay where they discover each other’s skill at writing and illustrating and become partners in the burgeoning comic book business. As time passes and business booms, Joe’s main concern is getting his 13 year old brother safely out of Czechoslavakia. Second in importance is his romance with the beautiful Rosa Saks. But overwhelming everything are the current world conditions with the U.S. on the brink of war.
Chabon’s genius is his ability to create the feeling that you’re really occupying the setting he describes with the characters he’s drawn. And he’s really, really good at it:
”One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing. The months preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor offer a rare exception to this axiom. During 1941, in the wake of that outburst of gaudy hopefulness, the World’s Fair, a sizeable portion of the citizens of New York City had the odd experience of feeling for the time in which they were living, at the very moment they were living in it, that strange blend of optimism and nostalgia which is the usual hallmark of the aetataureate delusion. The rest of the world was busy feeding itself, country by country, to the furnace, but while the city’s newspapers and newsreels at the Trans-Lux were filled with ill portents, defeats, atrocities, and alarms, the general mentality of the New Yorker was not one of siege, panic, or grim resignation to fate but rather the toe-wiggling, tea-sipping contentment of a woman curled on a sofa, reading in front of a fire with cold rain rattling against the windows."
This is a big, and by big I do mean long as in almost 700 pages, epic novel; possibly the great American novel we always seem to be looking for. It took a long time to get into it and by long time I mean well over 200 pages, but once there it was a very compelling read and one I can heartily recommend. Chabon’s writing is very captivating and he bounces around so many threads that it’s hard not to be emotionally involved in just about all of them. I’m going to miss these characters, all of whom I came to love.
Why? First of all, it's intensely readable. The pages simply zip by. They zip by with the same earnestness and believability the whole way through, too-- unlike some of Chabon's other works, like [The Yiddish Policemen's Union], there's no moment of disillusionment, no instance where he steps out of the shell of his world and into another, sourer version of it. No, this book manages to skip from 30s Prague to the fetal stages of American mass media to WW2 Antarctica without so much as a dipped eyebrow. It's totally honest. The pages just flow through your head like words on air, and it's wonderful.
Secondly, it's very modern, in that the themes of this book are super-21st-century type things. Superheroes-- all of a sudden it's chic to talk superheroes in literature. This book was the best of all recent attempts. Secondly, it's kind of a microhistory, in the same style as those other popular mass-consuption history books that have been making good these days, like [Salt] or [Cod] or those many books about piracy or John Wilkes Booth or what have you: super-readable stuff with a cinematographic air that makes its readers feel like they're learning something as they go.
Thirdly, it's got that modern peel-back-the-layers look at history. World War Two? Hitler? Let's add a touch of crazy magic stuff to it. Golems! That's good! Also? Gay people in the early Forties. Not much has been about those guys, is there? Let's learn a bit about them, too. The book reeks of well-researched atmosphere, of the kind of things no one could possibly have learned about in history books. Navy bases on Antarctica. Magicians' culture in Eastern Europe. Escape artists. Gay dudes in the forties. Let's get it all in there-- that's the attitude a lot of writers of historical literature have these days. Nothing expected, nothing typical: the atmosphere has the same taste you would expect of it if you had got it fully mainstream, but it's also nutted and clotted with the stranger aspects of history and culture that you might never hear of otherwise. That's the modern novelist's take on history writing.
Fourthly, it has magnificent characters. There isn't a lot else to be said about that. And fifthly? The writing. Chabon is a genius.
Oh, Chabon. You do such wonderful things. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing that you write exclusively about 'being Jewish,' though. You do it so well, but it's particularly when you do it THIS well that I start to wonder if your brilliance stems from something more than genius: from, perhaps, the earnestness of fervent self-inclusion. Always jewish dudes in bisexual love triangles with weird nerdy underpinnings. You're always thrashing at the walls of genre, which I appreciate, but there's still a thematic unity to all your books that's becoming a bit monolithic in its impressiveness. It's when I read a book this excellent and this out-of-the-typical that I'm reminded how you've traded one restriction for another. Chabon is the guy who can write everything from a swords-and-horses adventure to a Holmes pastiche while still being taken seriously as a literary author-- but he's also the guy who can only, ONLY, write about male Jews. So it goes. He does it damn well.
“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” a story by Michael Chabon set in the golden age of comic books, is dedicated to the author’s father. And in many ways, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is all about fathers and sons.
But paternity is only one ingredient of this Jewish cholent, an irresistible slow-cooking stew in which whatever you have is thrown into the pot. Imagine opening the lid to this stew and having your senses assailed by Chabon’s rhapsodic symphony of New York life in the 30’s: clarinet wails of war and loss, glissandos from hope to resignation and back, the warm intonations of family and love, and “the trumpeting of foghorns and melancholy steamships” under a sky that is “a bright superman blue” and “cloudless but for one lost lamb overhead.”
You could also think of this book as the adult’s “In the Night Kitchen” - the magical escape fantasy for children - drawn in chiaroscuro with a Gershwin soundtrack and a libretto that harkens back to Henry Roth and James Joyce. And the film credits? Orson Welles, of course, who inspires Sammy and Joe to think outside the confines of the comic strip box, and to let the free-falling flight of their dreams guide the expression of their talent.
It is a story about pupas with caterpillar dreams trapped in cocoons; of metamorphosis and escape; of comic books – that “marketplace of ten-cent dreams” by which boys could transfigure their insecurities, deformities, and weaknesses; of magicians and illusions; of golems (a Hebrew concept of men of clay who perform like men of steel when the world needs saving); of the impotency of real men in the face of evil; and above all, of the redemptive and liberating power of love.
In 1939, 19-year-old Josef Kavalier arrived from Prague at the New York home of his cousin, Sammy Klayman (note the sly reference to the clay man or golem), age 17. Joe’s family sacrificed everything to get just one member out from under the Nazi juggernaut. But Joe lived with survivor’s guilt, which hung like a dense heavy cloud over his life and threatened an outburst whenever he felt a spark of life or love.
Thus Joe, “remote and dreamy,” spends his life trying to find “atonement, retribution, or deliverance.” Joe and Sam set out to vanquish the Nazis in the only way they can, by summoning their own golem “formed of black lines and the four-color dots of the lithographer.” Thus is borne the comic superhero “The Escapist.”
Simultaneously, Joe begins a relationship with Rosa Luxemburg Saks, whom he meets while demonstrating his own escapist skills he learned as an apprentice to an apprentice of Houdini back in Prague.
Sammy takes up with the aptly named Tracy Bacon – a tall, beautiful blond male who plays The Escapist on the radio and who is “the world’s largest piece of trayf” (a word meaning “not kosher”). The lyricism of Chabon is always lying in wait for a chance at love. When Sammy and Tracy are exploring the inside of the defunct and abandoned Perisphere (part of the 1939 New York World’s Fair), which housed the gears and pulleys that controlled the motion, sound, and lighting of the futuristic exhibits, Sammy burned his fingers on the lighter he used to light the darkness. “They lay there for a few seconds, in the dark, in the future, with Sammy’s sore fingertips in Tracy Bacon’s mouth, listening to the fabulous clockwork of their hearts and lungs, and loving each other.”
Sammy and Joe go to work in the Empire State Building, which is also a recurring symbol in the book. It embodies transformation itself, from a gigantic shard of limestone to an engineering triumph that then becomes an enduring representation of progress, hopes, and dreams. It serves as the focus of the fictional icons of popular culture: it is from the top of its spire that King Kong reached his apotheosis before his doom; it is from its lofty heights that diverse superheros spotted evil and took off to save Gotham or Metropolis, and in the book, it is from its rooftop that Joe is poised and ready to “fly” to save his soul (while onlookers shout, in Chabon’s parody of Superman, “It’s a stunt! It’s a gimmick! It’s a great big pain in the ass!”) [Chabon is also referencing in multiple ways the old rumor that Jerry Siegel, disenfranchised co-creator of Superman, was going to jump off the Empire State Building.]
As the boys grow into men, they find they must eschew their old “caterpillar dreams.” Sammy “allowed the world to wind him in the final set of chains, and climbed, once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man.” Joe sought to hide from the world, “immured, by fear and its majordomo, habit.”
Sammy’s marriage, the result of his attempt to escape from his own homosexuality, has a “locked cabinet at the heart of things.” His relationship with his wife was “…a modest structure, never intended for extended habitation, long since buried under heavy brambles of indebtedness and choked in the ivy of frustration and blame.”
Joe tries once again to fashion a golem. But it is only love that can spring him from the chains he had wrapped around his life. And love he does find, embodied in soft skin that “invited the touch of his fingers as painfully as the nap of velvet or the shimmer of a piece of watered silk.”
Chabon begins this book with an exuberant outpouring of the “wild tufts in his mind.” By the end, these disparate plot lines are “comb(ed) out into regular plaits” and we can see glittering markers leading to his tour de force “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”
I read the end of this book on an airplane. As I taxied to the floodgates of the story, I forced myself to stop reading and defer the ending to a quieter moment, when perhaps I could enjoy “a cup of tea from an elaborate plummeting tea service,” as The Escapist imagined that he did, while flying through the air.
I can't really discuss this one without spoilers, so be warned: some significant plot elements are going to show up. I'll leave some surprises, I promise.
Josef Kavalier trained as an escapist as a boy in Prague, before fleeing the Nazi occupation to live with his aunt's family in New York. There he and his cousin Sam Clay create the superhero The Escapist, one of the most successful comic book series of the boom. Joe is saving everything he can in order to pay for his younger brother's escape from Europe, while Sammy manages a growing stable of comic book artists; meanwhile Joe meets the love of his life and Sammy realises --slowly and reluctantly, in 40s America-- that he is gay.
Suddenly, for both characters, everything collapses. Sam is confronted with how marginalising his burgeoning sexuality is, while Joe loses the brother he has worked so hard to save. Both, in different ways, are broken by what they cannot accept, and it takes until nearly the end of the novel for them to achieve some partial recovery.
I said the novel is "ultimately optimistic", which is perhaps an overstatement. The theme is escape, but again and again this is made impossible or shown to be insufficient for the characters. In fact the final, tentative, turn of Sam and Joe's fortunes only arrives when they stop trying to escape their respective problems and turn and engage them instead.
At their respective low points Joe and Sam are truly pathetic figures, escaping from the unacceptable into despair and madness. At the apex of their collaboration, though, they and their creation are equally magnificent. Chabon describes The Escapist so lovingly that it is hard to believe that the series never existed, and weaves it seamlessly into the real (and fascinating) history of the growth of the comics industry during the war.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel is how its personal and historical stories interlock so tightly, as do its own themes and those of the comic strip it describes. We've seen some aspects of these stories before (Jewish survivor's alienation and painful coming-out stories are hardly original subjects) but they're made newly fresh by the escapist material, and above all by Chabon's enormous enthusiasm for comics and his talent for conveying their visual appeal in prose.
The theme could be predictable and hamfisted: in America, Josef becomes Joe, and Sammy Klayman has already become Sam Clay; they escape from their Jewish backgrounds into the mainstream American middle classes just as Joe has already escaped Prague. But escape in itself isn't the only theme - it's also the failures that surround it, the way Joe and Sammy, in a way very reminscent of Angels in America, fail to be anything but their Jewish, troubled selves. Sammy can't escape from his own sexuality, Joe can't escape from anything he's left behind. And as a counterpoint to the escapes, there are the absences left behind: the absence of Sammy's father, Joe living with the daily absence of his family, and later, the absence of Joe.
The language is lyrical and indulgently expansive, the moods perfectly evoked, but interestingly, there is nevertheless an appopriate comic-book aspect to the way the novel is written: events have a ka-pow! quality, especially in the earlier part of the novel. Joe bounces through a young lady's window, to screaming, Sammy kisses his his first love on the roof of a building with thunderstorms exploding around them, and later, Joe's adventures in the Antarctic cold, complete with grim madmen and sudden death have the overblown comic-book feel.
What to say, in the end? I wasn't sure what to take away from this novel. It is too heavy and sad to read once, but there's something beautiful and altering in it, and something compelling about the way history and religion are threaded masterfully throughout. It stays with you, with all its weight
The descriptions Chabon conjures up are insanely well-done. This may sound trite, but I could feel the gritty sidewalks of Brooklyn, I could smell the offices of Empire Comics, and I could taste the slimy eggs Ethel made for Joe and Sammy. He doesn't use the hackneyed turns-of-phrases that you've seen a billion times and want to roll your eyes each time you see. The evocative images here made me feel like I could walk right into the diner where Joe and Sammy sat.
Chabon tells a story of love and loss (Joe's) and one of secrets and character (Sam's), all linked together by family ties and a girl (of course). These are such common themes, but they become fresh and radical in Chabon's capable hands. It could be seen as merely a "boy-meets-girl" story and a history lesson, or as an epic tale of identity, love, and loss.
Overall, I think what made this most powerful for me is how Chabon seemed to look at history, find what was there and then write it into a narrative. The universal motifs throughout history are the backdrop for this piece, which makes it more pertinent to each reader than any other book I've read. The validity of it's message on the human condition is proven by the very story it is telling.
I definitely recommend this to anyone with a willingness to look critically at the way history has played out. It can also be read as a fun romance/domestic narrative about two comic book writers over a 20 year period. Either way, it was wonderful!
Alas, I have found that it is not for everyone, but this Pulitzer Prize winner and bestseller has certainly won a lot of hearts, and will win yours if you have any interest in art, film, WWII, New York City, comic books or brilliant literary writing.
This was a fantastic book. It really sucks you in right from the start. Chabon's talent as a writer is immense. Every sentence is gorgeous but subtly so. I didn't feel hit over the head like you sometimes can with authors ("look at my sentences, aren't they glorious???") - everything just flowed nicely and fit together well and was wonderfully written. The characters are brilliant as well. There was not a one that I felt was lacking. They were all interesting and well-developed and vivid. I think my favorite thing about the book was how seamlessly the story of Kavalier and Clay fit into actual history. I love when authors are able to insert real people and events without making it feel hokey or like a ploy. That ability is something I greatly admire. Chabon clearly did his research prior to writing this novel because every juxtaposition of fact and fiction seems effortless. I will definitely read more by Chabon. A book incredibly deserving of its Pulitzer.
One of the prior themes here is escapism – in Joe’s worship of escape artist Harry Houdini, in the desire to help his family escape the Holocaust, and, finding reality difficult to change, in the desire to escape its bounds, via fantasy, and by running away.
The novel is imbued in Jewish culture, and along the lines of fantasy, the golem of Prague plays a subtle role throughout. In fact, the pair’s names seem to be a play on words, Cavalier Clay-Man (Sammy had changed his name from Klayman), in other words, a golem, an inanimate being brought to life, and one who was said in legend to have defended the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks.
A real world parallel to Kavalier and Clay mentioned in the book are Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a pair of Jews who in 1934 created Superman, a man dispossessed from his home and living under an assumed name (sound familiar?), but capable of fighting and overcoming evil. I had never known those guys were Jewish (maybe they should have found a way into Sandler’s Chanukah Song :)), and in discovering that, it struck me that their Superman was an interesting parallel to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, who of course was beloved by the Nazis.
But I digress. The novel began to take a turn for the worse for me when Joe ended up in Antarctica to fight in WWII, yes Antarctica, though this was probably an allusion to the absurdity of war, and to his helplessness to making any kind of impact on the Holocaust. For of course, there will be no way to stop it, or at least, stop it before six million lives are lost. There is no real golem, or real superman. Chabon exercises restraint and leaves this part of the story to the point of view of Joe: he gets snippets of information about his family, but little else, and then they’re gone.
As a whole, though, as he touches on so many other things - the exploitation of artists, the disruption of personal lives because of the war, Senate trials that resemble McCarthyism, and homosexuality to name a few - It’s a bit of sprawl, and I think he attempted to do too much. He certainly has a way with words, e.g. “Finally, just as the pain in his shoulder joint was beginning to intrude on the purity of his desperation, Josef succeeded in popping the latch.” And I enjoyed the Jewish culture and occasional Yiddish, e.g. “She was lying passed out on her belly, her sprawling right leg kicked free of the blankets and leaving exposed rather more than half of a big and fetching tuchis.”
However, at 700 pages it’s too long, and on top of that, in paperback form the font size was uncomfortably small. I began to want to ‘escape’ to my next book!
“The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited ‘escapism’ among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.”
“Sammy wondered if the indifference that he had attributed to his own father was, after all, not the peculiar trait of one man but a universal characteristic of fathers. Maybe the ‘youthful wards’ that he routinely assigned to his heroes – a propensity that would, from that day forward, enter into comics lore and haunt him for the rest of his life – represented the expression not of a flaw in his nature but of a deeper and more universal wish.”
On the different forms of grief, this after WWII and the Holocaust:
“I don’t think he’s out of his mind. You know? I just don’t know if there’s a sane reaction to what he…what happened to his family. Is your reaction, and mine…you get up, you go to work, you have a catch in the yard with the kid on Sunday afternoon. How sane is that? Just to go on planting bulbs and drawing comic books and doing all the same old crap as if none of it had happened.”
“He shrugged, but she knew he was lying. He had been lying to her steadily, and with her approval, for years. It was a single, continuous lie, the deepest kind of lie possible in a marriage: the one that need never be told, because it will never be questioned. Every once in a while, however, small bergs like this one would break off and drift across their course, mementos of the trackless continent of lies, the blank spot on their maps.”
On parenting, and childhood; if only it were this easy:
“For several years, she had been wishing him, willing him, into maturity, independence, a general proficiency beyond his years, as if hoping to skip him like a stone across the treacherous pond of childhood, and now she was touched by a faint trace of the baby in him, in his pouting lips and the febrile sheen of he eyelids.”
On settling in life:
“He allowed the world to wind him in the final set of chains, and climbed, once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man.”
On trying to leave a mark in life:
“I’m tired of fighting, maybe, for a little while. I fight, and I am fighting some more, and it just makes me have less hope, not more. I need to do something…something that will be great, you know, instead of trying always to be Good.”
On war, and how violence begets violence:
“But Joe was perhaps the first to feel the shame of glorifying, in the name of democracy and freedom, the vengeful brutality of a very strong man. For months he had been assuring himself, and listening to Sammy’s assurances, that they were hastening, by their make-believe hammering at Haxoff or Hynkel or Hassler or Hitler, the intervention of the United States into the war in Europe. Now it occurred to Joe to wonder if all they had been doing, all along, was indulging in their own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who revered only strength and domination.”
Lastly, I thought these were funny:
“Yes, it was always loads of fun dropping in on old Ethel, to share in the revelry and good times, to banter and sing and sup on the delicious fruits of her kitchen. Bubbie would have baked one of her bitter, brittle Bubbie babkas that they all had to make a fuss over even though each tasted as if she had baked it in 1877 and then mislaid it in a drawer until yesterday.”
“Like Sammy’s, the constant barrage of chatter Bacon maintained seemed design to impress and to charm, with a key difference: Bacon was impressive and charming.”
“Bacon and Bubbie seemed, in the dining room, to have run out of things to say to each other. It was one of those prolonged silences that meant, Ethel always used to say, that somewhere an idiot had just been born.”
“Sammy had little direct experience of actresses but shared in the conventional notion that by and large they possessed the sexual mores of estrous chinchillas.”
Chabon deftly weaves distinctly different motifs together into an amazing quilt, and he leaves few stray threads hanging on the reverse side. ...and yet, all of it maintained an air of intimacy. It was so easy to become Joe, or Sammy, or Rosa, all of whom I identified with at various points. It is no wonder that this book won a Pulitzer. In the end, it was less about comics than it was about people.
At 600+ pages, it's not a quick book but I never found it plodding. Chabon sucked me in right from the opening scenes of the meeting between Joe and Sam and I didn't want to put it down. Joe's adventures escaping from the Holocaust and the drama of the pair breaking into creating comic books make the first half of the book fly by.
The book does peter out a bit in the last quarter. What starts out as a novel about two people, full of adventure, somehow ends up a story about just one of them with the other fading off into the background and the story line becoming more prosaic. Still, I was hooked by that time and anxious to find out what happened and there are moments that definitely move the reader even then. The good absolutely outweighs the not-so-good.
It was more upbeat than the other Chabon book I've read (The Yiddish Policemen's Union); I won't say better, just very different.
I definitely recommend this.
The characters and their development are believable and warm, and the backdrop of places and people against which they are set is credible and evocatively described. Both a sweeping epic and a personal tale of loss and emotional growth, the story is told matter-of-factly, never forcing feelings on the reader, and brings its protagonists to life with a light and easy touch. Engrossing and very enjoyable.
What can you say about this book? They don't just go giving out Pulitzer Prizes to bad books. This book is superbly fantastic. I loved all the characters (some a little more than others), but all in all they were all lovely.
The only drawback was that (because I loved some characters more than others), I was itching to get to their perspective, but even that was easily swallowed because Chabon is pure genius.
To illustrate, he writes a scene so roundly, so full of emotion that when Josef is running across the arctic ice and freezes because he fears the sound of the wind, fears that there are Nazis hunting him, you freeze and catch your breath. You fear that the sound of your finger sliding down the page is too loud and will alert the Nazis who are hunting you in Subway where you're eating and reading. It's that good. (Luckily, there aren't actually any Nazis hunting us in Subway restaurants).
This review is painfully short because anything I write would be painfully insufficient to express the beauty of this novel. All I can say is: Drop whatever you're reading right now and pick this book up. Don't check it out from the library, you'll need your own copy that you can love and re-read because that's what the book does to you.
Kavalier first meets his cousin Clay (ne Klayman) after he escapes Nazi-infested Prague with the help of a doctor and a lifelike golem (or Clayman), aided by his knowledge of escapism, in part due to a fascination with Houdini.
The cousins team up and start drawing superhero comics. Kavalier and Clau makes The Escapist, a sort of hero that Kavalier would be if he had special powers, and in part, a form of escapism on his part. Soon, the cousins and their crack team of artists are cranking out stories.
But the thing about Golden Age comics publishing houses is the thing about Casinos: the house always wins. The cousins realize that they are not making the real money, and things start to fall apart. Kavalier joins the navy to seek revenge on those that hurt his family in Prague, and Clay struggles with his sexual identity.
Chabon drew, inked, and colored a wonderful picture of the Golden Age of comics, as well as the other events of the era when he wrote Kavalier & Clay.
This is highly recommended for any fan of Golden Age comics, or any fan of Chabon's other work.
So, what did I think?
Well, I loved it. It had a great combination of fantasy and historical fiction. The story follows cousins Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier while they find success as comic book writers/artists in New York City in the time surrounding WWII. Both have reasons to lose themselves in their created comic world of Empire City and live vicariously through their superheroes. Joe is trying to help his family escape from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia and Sammy is coming to terms with his sexuality.
There are chapters thrown in throughout where they diverge from Sammy and Joe and tell their Comics characters stories. Even these, however, give us insight into Sammy and Joe since they put so much of themselves into them. Their main character is The Escapists who fights fictional versions of Nazis and Hitler. It is a way for Joe to fight against those he can’t do so for real. Also, the Escapists alter ego is Tom Mayflower who has a lame leg and walks with a cane. Sammy is hindered a bit by his own legs due to having polio as a child.
So many aspects of this book make it worthy of its Pulitzer Prize. The story of these two cousins is so intriguing and inspiring. It makes you believe that anyone can be a superhero. Superheroes are not only in comics and novels.
I'm not sure what took me so long to get around to it. Something my creative writing professor said to me back in school hung out on the periphery of my consciousness every time I thought about picking it up. She said that the Pulitzer was too political and therefore wasn't a good reflection of great writing. The National Book Award, she said, was the one you wanted to win. (Rumor has it she was short listed for the Nobel a couple decades ago, so she might have been in a position to know these things.) But that really wasn't what kept me away. I think I was saving it for a rainy day.
So, after reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union recently and absolutely loving it, I decided to give this one a try. It was thoroughly and unashamedly and wonderfully and sadly not what I was expecting.
13 years after its publication, there isn't much new I can say. If you want a plot synopsis, go check out Amazon's page. If you want me to tell you it was a great book, okay, sure, it was. It had great writing (naturally) and well rounded characters and epic story lines. It was political (again, naturally) and poignant. It was set 60 years ago, and it still resonated. Chabon clearly did a lot of research about comic books and the industry during that time period, and he obviously had a lot of personal interest in the escape from Nazi Germany and retaliation against Hitler themes. His passion shone through.
But let me tell you where it fell down for me, just a couple of minor areas:
First, the balance between Kavalier and Clay was askew. Joe Kavalier was brilliant and athletic and brave and an artist and a magician and a millionaire (in the end) and a lover and a fighter and the true star of the show. Sam Clay was (at best) quietly brilliant, in a behind-the-scenes sort of way. So what was all of this business about the great duo of Kavalier and Clay? Where were Clay's adventures? Kavalier went on one great adventure after another. Clay glued himself to a typewriter, dared to fall in love, got slapped down for it, and never tried again. Joe was in the limelight and Sam was behind the curtain. Was this some sort of allusion to comic book themes? I couldn't tell. (Superhero to sidekick, perhaps, or maybe superhero to alter-ego. Neither really works in this context, so I don't think that was Chabon's intention.) I began to feel that the book should have been called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier full-stop. Everybody else, including Clay, was just a part of the supporting cast.
Second, the plot lines rambled, almost dysfunctionally. It felt to me as if Chabon was making up the plot as he went along, introducing new elements without giving as much as a backward glance to where he'd already been. Each individual piece was brilliant, but they didn't always go together structurally the way they would if Chabon had plotted them out in advance. (Not to say he didn't, just that I was expecting more meshing of plot points over the story's 15+ year span.) Instead, he jumps around a lot in a disconnected manner. Joe escapes from Nazi-controlled Prague. Joe comes to America and becomes a brilliant comic book artist. Joe spoils a plot to murder a theater full of Jews on America soil. Joe joins the Army to avenge his family's deaths and kill Nazis (hope I'm not spoiling anything here). Joe gets stationed in Antarctica and has adventures down there. Joe re-emerges years later in New York as an eccentric millionaire magician. All wonderful pieces individually. But what holds them together? Sam? Barely. Not much else.
Third, I wish Chabon had done more with the comic book motif than simply make it a back-story. The (few) chapters where he told scenes from the comics as metaphors for what was going on with his main character(s) were the best in the book, heading down the road to pure genius. However, there were only three chapters like that (two-and-a-half, really), and they ended just when they were getting good. Nothing like that at all in the last half of the book. (Wouldn't the entire Antarctic story line have been brilliant if done this way? If ever there was a setting ripe for hyperbolic exaggeration!) Why introduce that device and abandon it? If the story was all about comic books and these two characters' relationship with comics, then surely Chabon could have continued on in this manner all the way to the end. Wow, I wish he had.
Fourth, it wasn't very much fun to read. I know that isn't (or shouldn't be) a requirement for reading a book. But after the incredible amount of fun I had with Yiddish perhaps my expectations were a little high. I found myself *not* picking it up when I had a chance to read just as often as I did. No wonder it took me the better part of a month to get through it. A month? No, six full weeks. Yikes.
That said, I want to add that I'm incredibly glad I read it and (finally) finished it. It's one of those books that's kept me thinking even after I've put it back on my shelf. I connected with the two main characters. I felt their pain. I suffered their losses. And I cheered for them at the end, which really could have been the beginning of a-whole-nother beautiful story, and I keep thinking about what happens next. That's the mark of a truly great story. Chabon says (in the "additional material" he added to the 2012 re-print) that he has considered writing a sequel. I hope he does. I will read it.
I didn't mean to shoot down this book too harshly. It is quite impressive. It is exactly all that it was hyped to be. I just felt there were a few cracks in the armor that I couldn't help niggling about as I read, especially with a recent re-read of Yiddish still fresh in my mind. But, honestly, who am I to criticize a highly decorated and accomplished writer like Michael Chabon? I will continue to read his books, and I will continue to be envious of his amazing writing skill. However, if I'm asked to recommend one of his books to an uninitiated reader, I won't pull this one out first. That's all I'm saying.
After several attempts at writing my own summary of the book, I decided to go with the description on the back of the book so that I can just jump into telling you what I thought about it. So here it is:
Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories and art for the latest novelty to hit America—the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. With exhilarating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.
There is so much I want to tell you about this amazing book that I barely know where to begin. So let's start with what was initially the biggest stumbling block for me: comic books. I knew before I read this that it dealt extensively with comic books. Chabon has admitted to being a "fanboy" of the form, and my initial reluctance to tackle this 636-page book was mostly because I've never been a comic book reader and it seemed like a subject that might not hold my interest. If you have similar reservations, put them aside now.
Chabon is such a gifted writer and the comic book theme is interwoven so skillfully into the narrative that you'll be utterly involved and absorbed in this book. In fact, Chabon does such a brilliant job evoking the pleasures and value of comic books that I found myself wanting to explore the form. (When I discovered that Chabon collaborated with various artists to create a series of Escapist comic books, I was thrilled. I found myself wishing for an Escapist comic to read as I was going along, and now I can get my dream realized. I suspect I shall be one of the few women in their 40s asking for an Escapist comic for their birthdays this year!)
The fact that Chabon uses the theme of escape in both the fictional comic book that Kavalier and Clay create and in the novel itself is pure genius. Everyone in this book is escaping something—whether it is the Escapist bursting out of heavy chains, Sammy trying to evade his sexual orientation, Rosa seeking a path out of domesticity, or Joe trying to sever the ties that bind him to Prague. I'm not a big fan of analyzing books; I tend to read for my own enjoyment and entertainment. But when a writer can so perfectly integrate a theme throughout a book, I find that it adds an additional layer of richness to the reading experience. I think every reader can relate to the concept of escape. We've all tried to escape from something in our own lives—be it a stifling home life, unrealistic expectations, a love affair gone bad, a political climate that oppressed us—so who among us couldn't relate to characters who struggle mightily to escape their own demons, choices and environments?
Excerpt: The night he offered her the chance to draw "a comic book for dollies," Rosa felt Sammy had handed her a golden key, a skeleton key to her self, a way out of the tedium of her existence as a housewife and a mother, first in Midwood and now here in Bloomtown, soi-distant Capital of the American Dream.
It is also easy to escape into Chabon's writing. When I was reading the book, I took notes for myself as I read. One note read: "It is like Chabon has every word in the English language at his fingertips ready for use." My first exposure to Chabon's talent with words was when I read his collection of essays Manhood for Amateurs earlier this year. I was blown away by his writing in that book, and it was this (more than anything) that encouraged me to get over my fear of the comic book theme to read this book. And I wasn't disappointed.
Chabon's writing is an amazing thing. He has a gift for putting words together in a way that is surprising, playful and utterly satisfying. I sometimes talk about candy bar books and how they go down so easily but make you a little sick afterward. Reading a book by Michael Chabon is like sitting down for a gourmet feast that satisfies your soul. Yet, at the same time, his writing isn't fussy and inaccessible. So, let me rephrase that: Reading a book by Michael Chabon is like sitting down for a gourmet feast of comfort foods ... like eating the best macaroni and cheese you ever had in your life and finding out afterwards it tasted so good because the chef used black truffle oil in it.
There's a blurb on the back of my copy from New York magazine that reads: "I'm not sure what the exact definition of a 'great American novel' is, but I'm pretty sure that Michael Chabon's sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one." I have to say that I agree with this assessment. The book manages to incorporate the history of comic books, World War II, the immigrant experience, the "love that dare not speak its name," the power and value of art, and the feel of New York City and its growing suburbs yet wraps it all around the involving story of two cousins and the woman who binds them together. At its center, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about love, and the warm, beating heart of this book is what ultimately makes this such a satisfying read.
My Final Recommendation
Don't let the comic book theme fool you, this is an accessible, satisfying, sprawling novel that will reward you with its brilliant use of the English language and a story that will simultaneously break and warm your heart. The theme of escape is interwoven brilliantly throughout the novel and makes for a rich, multi layered read. One of the closest contenders for the Great American Novel (Modern) that I've read.
Although the story is some what jumpy, it flows well enough and holds your attention from the moment it starts to the moment you close the back cover and wonder if there is a sequel (unfortunately, there is not). The book not only tells the story of two cousins, but it also tells the history of Brooklyn and America in the 1940's and 50's through the history of comic books.
The book is filled with adventure after adventure. By the end of the book I was in tears, and you will be too, after you have experienced the lives of Sammy and Joe, filled with love, war, anger, hate, happiness and the need to pull the destroyed world back together.
Despite being set in the past, the story is timeless, and people of all generations are able to relate, because Michael Chabon makes you feel the characters's emotions.
The Amazing Adventures of kavalier and Clay was one of the most personal, moving, witty and engaging books I have ever read, and quickly made the top of my list.