Michael Chabon — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

May 27, 2009 at 11:48 am 8 comments

It’s 1939. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are young Jews in New York. Joe is a Czech newly evacuated from Nazi-occupied Prague. Sammy is his American cousin. Strapped for cash, the pair take to writing comic books.

Their work, like many comics of that “golden age” for the artform, poignantly conjures up a vision of the world as it ought to be, but isn’t. Their superhero, the Escapist, is a godlike figure, metering out salvation and justice in lieu of the official God, who is apparently out for lunch.

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Michael Chabon’s lengthy Pulitzer-prizewinner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), evokes this lost world in intricate period detail, evincing a wealth of careful research. It’s one of those books that’s terribly eager to win historical brownie points, to the extent of chucking in cameo appearances from Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí.

Yet it’s far from a bland historical document. Chabon tells a story that’s just a little bit larger than life in every dimension, full of dramatic incidents and strange coincidences. I don’t have time to recount the 650 pages of twists and turns. Suffice to say, it’s compelling, but at a cost. It’s just slightly implausible, all the way through, not so unlike a comic book. It’s then jarring when Chabon includes genuinely tragic moments, which end up feeling like just another plot twist.

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Chabon teases out the similarity between comic book superheroes and the Golems of Jewish folklore: mythical clay monsters who, when teased into life, kill the oppressors and save the oppressed:

The shaping of a golem, to him [Joe], was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something — one poor, dumb, powerful thing — exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of the vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape. To slip, like the Escapist, free of the entangling chain of reality and the straightjacket of physical laws.

Of course, all this talk of heroes can only end in pathos. Golems and superheroes are not real. No one could save the Jews from Hitler. We know that already. When Kavalier goes to war — in a short, surreal interlude  — he tries to play the Golem for real; but, posted to Antarctica, his utter impotence against the juggernaut of history is brought home to him in devastating fashion. Joe comes to realize all the more keenly the need for escape.

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 and necessary service in life.

The novel is an unsubtle, extended argument that, despite its unreality, comic book escapism really is worth something. Myths keep hope alive.

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Did I like it? Well, I got to the end, which is a testament to Chabon’s silky, flowing style. The book is a pleasure to jump into. But, for me at least, the novel shows the limitations of historical fiction. Reading their highly novelistic “adventures”, I became acutely aware that Kavalier & Clay are no more real than Batman & Robin.

I think there’s something to be said for fiction that’s a little less showy than this, and tethered a little more closely to reality — fiction rooted in the author’s real, lived experience, rather than in a mountain of meticulous research.

Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Chabon Michael. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Kazuo Ishiguro — Nocturnes M. J. Hyland — This Is How

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KevinfromCanada  |  May 27, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Thanks for this. I keep looking at this book and thinking “do I really want to read 650 pages based on comic books?” I did read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union but admit I found that a struggle and it seemed to have more going for it in terms of interest than this one does. This review pretty much convinces me that Kavalier and Clay can stay waiting for quite a bit longer, perhaps forever.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  May 28, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Thanks Kevin — I mean, my review is ambivalent. The book is enjoyable, and probably worth the time investment, but not as good as I thought it might be.

    Given that it is “650 pages based on comic books”, I wonder if it would have benefited from some pictures, to recreate for the reader what the protagonists were actually drawing. The book is full of descriptions of comics, which is rather strange, and puts extra distance between the reader and the events.

  • 3. William Rycroft  |  May 28, 2009 at 11:26 am

    I’m an unashamed fan of this book, having sprinted through its considerable length and been caught up in its period and detail. When I went to Prague afterwards my wife and I had to search out more information on the Golem. Having said all that, I know that I wasn’t paying as close attention to it as I tend to give books now (this made clear when I asked my wife where she was up to at one point when she was reading it and my blank response when she said he’s walking to the Arctic with his dog) so I’m not sure what I might think on a re-read.

    You mention the lack of pictures: the book has inspired some actual Escapist adventures which can be found here. There are three collected volumes now I think.

    A movie adaptation has been on and off the table for years now with Stephen Daldry at the helm.

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  May 28, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Thanks for the link… to be honest, I think the time and the place for “Escapist adventures” was in the book itself, rather than in a spin-off, but it’s a nice touch.

    The story of the film is a bit sad. There’s been all kinds of rumours (e.g. Natalie Portman as Rosa) but it seems to be suspended indefinitely. The book seems like it could be a blockbuster, but only if done right. I can see why they’ve hit problems. The novel is spread over a very long time period, and the more surreal and/or implausible bits might not come across so well on screen.

  • 5. Max Cairnduff  |  June 29, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Fascinating, I have The Yiddish Policeman’s Union at home and have read Gentlemen of the Road, but not this one.

    Interestingly, Chabon is the only writer I can think of who is travelling from literary fiction to genre, I’ve seen plenty go the other way, but his path is rarer. This sounds like a step on that way, whereas Gentlemen of the Road is an unabashed homage to Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock (which, since he still gets reviewed mostly in the literary pages, I think many reviewers missed, which was a shame as that was the whole point really of that particular book).

    I grew up on superhero comics, I don’t read them today though I do still read comics, I’m of mixed views about this. It tempts, the subject matter, the period, the writing (chabon as you note can certainly write), but the conflict between the genre elements and the genuineiy tragic does sound jarring as you say.

    Good review, it’s actually left me quite uncertain about whether to get this one, but I think that may reflect the book and my interest in its subject and my reservations about mixing that subject with real world horror.

  • 6. Suzanne  |  September 30, 2009 at 3:30 am

    I just returned from a book club metting on this book and there was much discussion and confusion whether or not Sam was romantically in love with Joseph. At the end Sam asks his wife Rosa if she still loves Joseph after he returns many years later. She doesn’t answer. She simply asks Sam, “Do you?” Did she mean sexually/romantically???

  • 7. Jonathan Birch  |  October 23, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Thanks Suzanne… good question! I’m afraid I honestly can’t remember whether there was any sexual tension there or not. I have a vague memory of some hint of Sam being attracted to Joe at times. But I don’t think Joe ever reciprocated.

  • 8. Rank better for amazon  |  June 18, 2013 at 7:10 am

    I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your
    sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back in the future. All the best

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