The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon

Random House, 2000, 639 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-28299-0

Now that is one amazing book.

Deftly mixing such disparate elements as World War II, New York City, Antarctica, homosexuality, the Empire State Building, the Holocaust, movies, Picasso and -above all- comic books, it’s a novel unlike any other, straddling history, alternate reality and a little bit of traditional fantasy. More than simply a snapshot of America between 1939 and 1954, more than a rags-to-riches story of successful artists, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay also stands as one of the few works compelling to both genre and mainstream audiences.

It was inevitable, I suppose; after years of increasing literary sophistication in the comic book field, it was about time that someone on the other side of the fence took an interest in the world comic books. Michael Chabon isn’t merely just any mainstream author, though; without even looking at his biography, his love of comics shines through the book like a lighthouse. But as he sets out to tell the astounding story of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, it’s also obvious that he’s doing a lot more than pay homage to the wonderful Golden Age of Comics.

1939: After many misadventures (soon described in the book’s first section), Josef Kavalier arrives in New York, seeking sanctuary as the situation in his hometown of Prague gets worse and worse for all Jews. Scarcely a few days after arrival, Joe and his cousin Samuel Klayman are able, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, to create a brand-new comic book for an ambitious publisher looking for another Superman. Soon enough, “The Escapist” is born and a new age in comic books is underway. Meanwhile, all the way over there in Europe, a war begins.

As Chabon describes the war through the viewpoint of two comic book artists working in New York, sublimating their anger through art and doing their best to get ahead in the comics industry, it quickly becomes obvious that this is a big, big, big novel. Romantic entanglements, family tragedies, period detail and comic book scenarios all intermingle to form a single narrative. It attains a climax of sort on December 7th, 1941, but the story is far from being over; indeed, the next section titled “Radioman” may just be the best part of the book. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an epic story about two guys and the whole world. The depth of detail that Chabon gives to the story is just astonishing; even for casual fans of the era, he manages to seamlessly insert Kavalier, Clay and their Escapist in 1940s New York, all the way to the (hiss!) Wertram era.

But scope and verisimilitude aren’t the only virtues of this novel; more than anything, this is a book that succeeds on great characterizations and superb writing. Chabon is a playful stylist, and so the narrative is told from a modern perspective that recalls the work of an enthusiastic biographer, albeit one with the omniscience required to peek at unread letters and buried feelings. Comic book scripts are dramatized and inserted in the narrative. Some historical cameos will make comic book fans coo with glee. A touch of matter-of-fact fantasy is inserted in the best magical realism tradition. Flashbacks, flash-forwards and dastardly twists are strewn through the whole book. Packed with delicious prose from the first to the last page, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is hard to stop reading after even the first chapter.

But as the title of the novel suggests, it’s Kavalier and Clay themselves, along with the rest of the supporting characters, who make the book such a unique reading experience. The partnership and contrast between tall, quiet, tortured Kavalier and stocky, hustling, equally-tortured Clay is credible even as outlandish events unfold in their lives. Great stuff, enhanced by sympathetic portraits of them both.

All in all, a heck of a book. It has deservedly won a Pulizer prize, but more important, it’s a hugely enjoyable novel with wide appeal in and out the mainstream literary crowd. It’s the sort of thing to make genre fans fall in love with the straight-up fiction category and general audiences pay attention to comic books. Everyone gets ahead!

[May 2004: As I finish my review, I see that a derivative comic book called “The Escapist” is out there, giving tangible form to the comics described in the novel. Neat!]

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