A Review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

If you are interested in the ‘golden age’ of comic books, are of Jewish, Eastern European origin, have some interest in WWII, or are a New Yorker, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay will have a particular resonance for you. Even if none of these things are the case, you will find yourself transported by the terrific story, and moved by the beautiful and delicate prose. Read it the first time for the plot, since you will find yourself unable to slow down your reading pace enough to truly enjoy the beauty of its language, then read it again, and enjoy the stunning prose, and the delicate structure which the amazing Michael Chabon is able to create in this superb book.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate (HarperCollins)
ISBN: 1841154938, A$22.95,
23 January 2002 (first released 2000)

“It was a caterpillar scheme – a dream of fabulous escape- that had ultimately carried Josef Kavalier across Asia and the Pacific to his cousin’s narrow bed on Ocean Avenue.” So begins what is truly an amazing adventure, as Josef escapes the Nazis in Prague in 1939, and, with his fast talking Brooklyn cousin Sam Klayman, alias Clay, creates The Escapist, an extremely successful comic series which takes the genre to a new level. The story is engaging, tight, and fast paced, despite being over 600 pages of small type. The story is so unique, exciting, realistic, and relevant, that it is hard to imagine a reader that wouldn’t like it.

Despite the strong plot, pace and comic book hero styling, the story is beautifully written, combining elements of love, magic, loss, war, pain, glory, tradition, and pleasure in an historical context. The characters are well drawn, detailed, and realistic. The reader becomes caught up in these lives in such an intense way that, temporarily at least, the world outside the book takes on a dreamlike quality. Josef is the sort of character Ayn Rand would liked to have created if she were talented enough. Beautiful, tragic, uncompromising, a trained magician and escapist, visually gifted, and utterly unable to do the one thing he wants most – save his family. Sam is also tragic, as he simultaneously denies and promotes himself. The centre of the love triangle is Rosa Saks, also beautiful, bohemian, gifted and tragic. The three main characters circle around each other, using their artistic talents, and their pain to creating life in a myriad of forms, from childbirth to characterisation.

In addition to the three main, and very realistic characters, there are also a host of hysterical B movie type characters which give the book its irreverent flavour, such as Sam’s missing father, the Mighty Molecule, with his shiny black suits, his smooth shaven body, and his shoulders as broad “as the grille of a truck, his arms as thick as the thighs of an ordinary man”. His brief foray into Sam’s life has a major impact on Sam. There is Longman Harkoo, also known as Siegfried saks, Rosa’s father, whose very large suits, big cracked baby face, and slightly camp attitude contrasts with his steadfastness, and the affection which he develops for Josef. There is the Saboteur, aka Carl Ebling, Josef’s pathetic, insane, and admiring nemesis who heads up the “Aryan-American League”, along with Josef’s early teacher Bernard Kornblum, the mogul Shelly Anapol, the speechless Golem, and the many comic heroes that populate this story. There is the limping superman the Escapist, the fishnet stocking cladded Luna Moth, and even relatively minor characters such Joe’s grandmother Bubbie, provide a great deal of colour, with her unpleasant breakfast: “a stack of black rectangles and a pool of yellow mucilage that she felt obliged to identify for him as toast and eggs.”

Then there are the celebrities. Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, whom Josef saves from suffocation in his strange old fashioned diving gear breathing apparatus, Eleanor Roosevelt, Roy Lichtenstein, and of course Superman, The Green Lantern, Spiderman, and Captain Marvel. The name dropping would be silly, as would the coincidental impact of the heroes of this book on these real life characters (at one point the early Lichtenstein is influenced by a picture on the wall of The Escapist), if the reader weren’t having such a damn good time.

“Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation.” The narrative style of the book is like that of an historian, looking back on a particularly interesting period of American history: “Every golden age is as much a matter of disregard as of felicity.” The book begins with this projection in time: “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention…”, and throughout the book there are these bits of pseudorealism, as the narrator suggests some point in the present that is very much the future for the characters in this story. This is done subtly enough so that it doesn’t interfere with the linear pace of the tale, and instead has the effect of adding another layer of depth to the story, as the characters are projected forward in time to suggest what they will make of any particular moment. The narrator is also omniscient, and is able to tell us the contents of letters that are left unread, or the thoughts of those that are never expressed, but again, this is done in such a smooth way, and the narrator remains so completely invisible, that the reader is not left wondering about this additional character. The book uses dialogue to a very good effect, with bits of Yiddish, Brooklynese, German, and character idiosyncrasies creating a very enjoyable, natural setting. The broader thematic threads of “good versus evil”, American isolation versus world tragedy, the Depression, the impact of World War 2, McCarthyism, Racism, and Escapism in its many forms, weave their way through the main story of Josef, Sam, and Rosa, bringing history to the very detailed level of the individual.

The theme of escapism is perhaps the most important one in the book, and related to that, Magic, both in its illusionary form, and what is classed as the real magic of life. Bernard Kornblum finds magic in physics, and astronomy; Joself Kavalier finds magic in death: “The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place”. The real magic in this story is in the human capability for love, suffering, and those tiny coincidences we turn into art, such as the moths which follow the Saks family, and the Josef’s epiphany on spotting a large luna moth on a tree, which ultimately becomes the Luna Moth character. Escape is also a combination of skill and coincidence – a mixture of real and illusionary magic. Josef has many such escapes. He escapes from the Nazi’s, narrowly escape drowning in his first public escape attempt, escapes from The Saboteur, escapes his own life as he goes off to war, escapes a freak death by asphyxiation in Antarctia, escapes death by a lone, gun touting German, and eventually, even escapes his own anger, and invisible chains:

Josef was one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinary of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons. Such men feel imprisoned by invisible chains-walled in, sewn up in layers of batting. For them, the final feat of autoliberation was all too foreseeable.

Other characters aren’t so lucky. Not everyone is an escape artist. Josef’s family is permanently trapped, as are Anabel, and to a lesser extent, Rosa and Sam. Art, love, or death, are the ultimate means of escape though, and perhaps Thomas is able to free both Josef and Rosa:

“Only love,” the old magician had said, “could pick a nested pair of steel Bramah locks.”

As for Sam, he may or not free himself in the end. In any case, in the absence of love, there is always art.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is, overall, a story about love, and art. It touches on important, and relevant issues such as homosexuality, self-fulfilment, censorship, anti-semitism, feminism, the politics of war, and covers a broad sweep of time and place, but above all, it is the story of Josef, Sam, Rosa, and maybe Thomas. This is a personal tale full of small details, everyday circumstances, ordinary people, and everyday heroes. If you are interested in the ‘golden age’ of comic books, are of Jewish, Eastern European origin, have some interest in WWII, or are a New Yorker, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay will have a particular resonance for you. Even if none of these things are the case, you will find yourself transported by the terrific story, and moved by the beautiful and delicate prose. Read it the first time for the plot, since you will find yourself unable to slow down your reading pace enough to truly enjoy the beauty of its language, then read it again, and enjoy the stunning prose, and the delicate structure which the amazing Michael Chabon is able to create in this superb book.

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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

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