The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Random House 2000 636 pp. 26.95
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Michael Chabon’s new novel is the product of a sparkling intelligence, undeniable talent, and consummate skill. The subject of this tour de force? Comic books.
The history of the influence of immigrant East European Jews on the American comic book industry doesn’t sound like promising material for a novel. In the right hands, however, a day’s walk through the streets of Dublin can be the stuff of a masterpiece. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a triumph both of style and storytelling.
In 1939, Josef Kavalier, a boy devoted to drawing, is also studying under the master illusionist of Prague, Bernard Kornblum, second only to Houdini in his powers of escape. However, Hitler’s hegemony over Prague becomes unbearable to Josef, and he arranges a complex escape to America, where he moves in with the family of his young cousin, Samuel Louis Klayman, a.k.a. Sammy Clay.
Soon Sammy’s imaginative abilities as a storyteller, combined with Joe’s skill as an artist, come together in a scheme Sammy has hatched: to create a comic hero to rival the most popular comic book hero in America, Superman. From their own inventiveness, not to mention a large helping of autobiography, springs The Escapist, “a master of self-liberation,” whose goal is to “procure the freedom of others, whether physical or metaphysical, emotional, or economic.” The Escapist happily has no “meddling girlfriend, quarrelsome sidekick, ironic secret identity, bumbling police commissioner, Achilles heel, corps of secret allies, or personal quest for revenge.”
Sammy and Joe’s youthful naiveté causes them to make an unfavorable deal with their publisher, Amazing Midget Radio Comics, their bosses making sure that “the river of money beside which they had pitched their camp had been diverted, and would henceforth flow no more around them.”
As Hitler’s plans for European Jews becomes clearer, Joe must now plan a very real escape: freeing his Czech family, especially his little brother Thomas, from Hitler. He fights on dual battlefronts: in the pages of the Amazing Midget Radio Comics—where Hitler is repeatedly vanquished by the Escapist—and by purchasing passage for his family on a very real ship, bound for the United States.
This account barely scratches the surface of this complex, richly textured tale that stretches from the war years to the mid-fifties, involving the fate of the Jews, the transformation of the American economy by war, the business of comic books, an unusual love triangle, an hallucinatory wartime experience in the Antarctic, and many more super heroes (including Miss Judy Dark, Under-Assistant Cataloguer of Decommissioned Volumes, who one misty evening becomes Luna Moth, “the first sex object created expressly for consumption by little boys”).
By the mid-fifties, the comic book industry was under siege by self-proclaimed moralists, was well as “the whirling thresher blades of changing tastes, an aging readership, the coming of television, a glutted marketplace, and the unbeatable foe that had wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” How Joe and Sammy deal with their declining fortunes is both novel and believable.
Chabon is particularly skilled in weaving the characters’ story into the real world of American celebrity: we meet, among others, Orson Welles and Delores del Rio. Salvador Dali appears, attired in a diving suit, in an unforgettable party sequence with young Joe.
There is a Pynchoneseque exuberance about this book, both in the plotting and the language. Chabon’s verbal inventiveness never seems forced, yet it maintains the capacity to happily surprise the reader throughout this long tale. His pitiless handling of the fates of his characters grants this book an ironic realism, given the novel’s concern is with the most fantastic of sub-literary products, the comic book.
This is not a story without faults. The ending, in particular, seems forced, in the interest of wrapping up a number of loose ends. The reappearance of several characters from early in the book seems more appropriate in a theatrical drama than something so rooted in the realistic historical milieu from which it sprang. While the female characters are strongly drawn, this remains a boy’s, then a man’s book, with the females exerting their undeniable influence largely on the sidelines of the plot.
However, these are merely quibbles. Chabon has produced a story that, for all its seeming surface inconsequence, manages to deeply involve the reader emotionally. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay reminds us of the ability of a gifted novelist to summon from the past characters who will continue to populate the imaginations of his readers long after they have set the book aside. This is a marvelous book.