Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)

Michael Chabon's deft and remarkable novel concocts an alternative history of comic books stretched just wide enough to contain his two titular characters, comic book scripter Sammy Clay and illustrator-with-portfolio-extraordinaire Joe Kavalier, who are cousins. Clay grew up in Brooklyn and Kavalier escaped Prague even as the fascist pall of the late '30s settled across it ("escape" in every sense being the operative word). The novel concerns itself with comic books and a burgeoning new industry and even art form, as well as with World War II, love, destiny, obsession, fate, and finding oneself, among other matters addressed. It sprawls from Manhattan diners where Gil Kane and Stan Lee get breakfast to the wastelands of the Antarctic to the back alleys of the Prague ghetto. It features golems and other super-heroes—even invents one for the occasion, the Escapist, which if not particularly believable as Golden Age fare to me was still good enough for Dark Horse to give it a try recently. There are Nazis here (of course), though mostly of the American variety, along with fisticuffs, spectacular magic tricks, gay sex, and no small amount of casual, historical name-dropping throughout. Orson Welles pops up once or twice. So does Man Ray. But for all the clever sleight of hand and determined wandering afield, Chabon is masterful at keeping the focus on mid-20th century life and all that it brought. And though it's rather a long novel, it lends itself easily to taking in large gulps—which, after the first hundred pages or so, could very well be all you want to do until you've finished it up.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Just noticed that Can't Explain includes Michael Chabon as one of its finer-print topic links, so I got to read the two reviews of his books you've logged in, for the first time. I'd never heard of "Kavalier & Clay" until it was assigned in my NYC Books learning-in-retirement course this winter, but then when I looked up Chabon, I found that he was also the author of "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh", which I'd read and liked some years ago.

    My course's co-moderator, who grew up in Brooklyn, and thus retains a lot of feeling for the Gotham environment, gave us three whole weekly class sessions to read and discuss "Kavalier & Clay", since it's so long and complex. When I saw that it involved the Golden Age comics scene, I was afraid that it might have too much graphic-novel sensibility for my taste, but it turned out to be eminently readable in traditional-novel style, if with lots of plot surprises in a very episodic tale. You're sure for many pages that Joe is about to go off to fight the Nazis to avenge their depredations on his native land and family, but then all of a sudden he's jarringly isolated on Antarctica, where there's also an isolated Nazi or two (which turns out to have been based on actual WW2 mischief on the frozen continent -- I learned something new.) And I was impressed that Chabon handles the Golem myth much more constructively than Pete Hamill did in "Snow in August", another novel we read in the NYC Books course. I'll echo your recommendation of this long trek of a story.

    Richard Riegel