Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon



This post contains major spoilers


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, written by Michael Chabon, won Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. It is the story of two young and talented comic book writers and artists. The novel spans from the late 1930s, which was the beginning of the comic book era, through the 1950s. 

Joe Kavalier is a Jewish refugee from Prague. He is intent on rescuing his family, which has remained in Europe. He is also determined to take revenge upon all Germans. 

Sammy Clay is Joe’s American cousin. As Sammy passes beyond adolescence, he hesitantly comes to the realization that he is, in our current terminology, a gay man. As the story develops, he attempts to come to grips with this fact, as well as the ensuing related social and legal repressions.

Rosa Saks is an artist who is Joe’s bohemian girlfriend. She plays an integral part in the plot as she attempts to assist Joe in bringing his younger brother to safety into the United States. She is later heavily involved in the lives of both male protagonists.

There are so many plot elements of interest. Much of the story concerns itself with the early American comic book industry. Major parts also include a look into the world of magicians and escape artists. There are cameos by real historic figures, such as Salvador Dalí and Sam Winston. A few chapters take place in the fictitious comic book world.

I must confess that I have never been a fan of comic books, including some of the newer ones that I have been told have strong artistic merit. Nevertheless I found this book riveting and worthwhile. 

A Google search reveals that it is no secret that one of the main themes of the novel is people’s tendency to try to escape. Characters attempt to escape the Nazi’s, responsibilities, family, boredom, etc. Not only is the entire concept of the superhero shown to be escapism, but Joe and Sammy’s greatest creation is a superhero known as The Escapist.

If escape is a main theme here, then the great puzzle, it seems to me, is: just what specifically is Chabon saying about people’s tendency to attempt escape? I think that the author is trying to show that this human tendency is complex and yields no easy truths.

First, the desire to escape is shown to be universal. Almost every character in the book attempts some form of escape. At times, the author seems to be indicating that it is a necessity and a positive part of human life. When a looming Congressional Investigation is bubbling on the subject of the role that comic books play in the “corruption” of youth, Joe ruminates, 

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 or necessary service in life.  

Yet, in several instances, characters’ escape attempts from life situations lead to horrendous disaster. At one point, Joe is on the eve of proposing marriage to Rosa. The couple is in love and a relatively happy life together seems a real possibility. At this moment, Joe is informed of the death of his young brother Thomas, who himself was in the process of attempting escape from Nazi occupied Europe. Thomas is the victim of a German U-Boat. 

Upon hearing the news, Joe takes drastic measures to escape from reality. He abandons both Rosa and Sammy. He joins the navy and refuses to even read Rosa’s or anyone else’s letters. His escape is symbolically complete when the navy assigns him to a super isolated base in the wilderness of Antarctica. Though Joe does not know it, Rosa is pregnant with his child. This escape attempt is enormously damaging to the lives of multiple people.

There are a lot more complex permutations on the theme of escape. These include Sammy’s escape from the reality of his sexuality and emotions by spurning a man that he is in love with and subsequently entering into an ill-conceived marriage with Rosa. Joe, for his part, is an accomplished escape artist along the lines of Harry Houdini. Numerous other examples, as well as the examination of those examples, abound.

As noted by many others who read this work, I agree that in terms of the plot, the last one third is not as engaging as the earlier parts. I found this to only be a minor flaw as in terms of theme and character development, Chabon’s work is strong throughout.

There is so much going on in this book beyond the central theme of escape. The history of the comic book industry is examined in some depth, as are its artistic and psychological underpinnings. The novel has several compelling characters. The story contains social commentary on the plight of gay men. It is often very funny as well as tragic. Chabon’s prose is accessible and entertaining and filled with unusual and rare words.  This is both a fun and meaningful book.

I highly recommend picking up a later printing of the novel. Chabon has included some related short stories in these editions. These include an epilogue that takes place in the 1980s that fills the reader in as to how the lives of the protagonists panned out after the close of the novel.

27 comments:

Suko said...

This does sound fascinating, Brian Joseph. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thought it was fun yet meaningful. Very nice review! I will keep this one in mind. I had not heard of it before.

Suko said...

This does sound fascinating, Brian Joseph. I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thought it was fun yet meaningful. Very nice review! I will keep this one in mind. I had not heard of it before.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko -


I also had not heard of this one until my sister told me about it. Based on wining and the Pulitzer Prize and what I see online it does seem to be a popular book.

Brian Joseph said...

My Apologies as I inadvertently deleted Jaquiwine's ( http://www.blogger.com/profile/16220597283351925721 ) comment. The comment was:


"Great review, Brian. This book has been sitting on one of my wishlists for quite a while, but I'll have to get it once I return to buying again. I'm interested in your thoughts on the escape theme and how Chabon seems to be saying that it can be a positive and necessary element of our lives.

Was this your first by Chabon? I've often wondered whether to start with another (The Wonder Boys, perhaps?) as K&C sounds quite rich. "

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - Thanks for the good word.


I again apologize for the comment mishap :(

This is my first Chabon book but I do also want to read The Wonder Boys.

I would love to know what you think of this one if you read it.

Everyone seems to agree on the obvious escape theme in this novel. However, what Chabon is saying about it seems to be kind of a tough thing to crack.

JacquiWine said...

No worries at all, Brian! These things happen. I think I might start with The Wonder Boys as I enjoyed the film. I'm keen to get to K&C though as I've heard so many great things about it and your review adds to this view.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- I actually have not yet seen the film The Wonder Boys. I hope to soon.

James said...

Like you I have never been a fan of comic books. I remember Superman more from the 1950s television serial starring George Reeves than from the Superman comics.
However I also enjoyed reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay several years ago. Your fine review reminded me why I enjoyed the book as Chabon is a fine storyteller in his own right. Thanks for reawakening in me the importance of "escape"!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James- This book almost made me want to try reading comic books.

I also grew up on that old 1950s TV Superman. Though it was so very campy there was something so very charming about it.

Caroline said...

I've owned this for ages - and so probabaly don't have those short stories included - but forgot about. I like what you write about escape. There really are so many possibilities to escape or reasons to do so. I find the comic book industry fascinating although I haven't read any since I was a child.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- After reading this book the comic book industry and artistic innovations sound even more interesting to me.

Sharon Henning said...

I've heard of Chabon. I haven't read any of his work but I'm fascinated how talented he must be. I'm glad you enjoyed the book. By your description it sounds as though it contains some interesting things, such as the history of the comic book industry.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- Indeed this book is a kind of primer on the early history of the comic book industry. This is a history much more interesting then I ever thought.

Richard said...

I've been on the fence about whether I'd want to read this one day since I've heard both good and bad things about Chabon's writing over the years and the plot sounds like it could easily devolve into an issue-driven mess if not handled with subtlety. That being said, I'm glad to hear you liked this so much--will keep the novel afloat as a possibility for 2015.

Benish Khan said...

Wow, you have such an amazing blog - I can't believe I hadn't found it before! Following you via GFC & Fab post - thanks for sharing =)

Benish | Feminist Reflections

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - I would say that the plot got a little sloppy towards the end when Chabon added the issue of the plight of gay men in society. Though I am extremely sympathetic to the issue it was presented in a slightly awkward way. With that it was not the primary plot driver and in my opinion only presented minor problems.


I personally like Chabon's writing style. He is often playful and light but never over the top. I found his use of extremely obscure words fun

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Benish - Thank you so much for your kind words and for reading.

I am off to your blog to do some reading!

Tracy Terry said...

Not a genre I have ever read, the comic book format has never really been on my radar and yet every now and then something will come along that makes me want to give it a go. This is just such a book. Thanks for the recommendation Brian. Seasons greetings to you and yours.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I generally felt the same way about comic books. This work makes them feel very worthwhile however. I wish that I had more time to give them a try.

Happy Holidays to you and your family Tracy!

Lindsay said...

Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year Brian :)

Brian Joseph said...

Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Years Lindsay!

Maria Behar said...

I can't say this is really my cup of tea, as it sounds too depressing. However, the theme of escape does. interest me. I have been trying to escape from. reality my whole life! But I'm not referring to the reality of the natural world, which is of course breathtaking. Instead, I am referring to the reality of daily routine, with its meaningless monotony and boredom. More.....

Maria Behar said...

I'm on my cell phone right now, and for some reason, it's limiting how many words I can type! Grrrrr. Anyway, I wanted to add that my escape from reality also includes escape from office politics. I have always felt stifled by these things. Of course, books have always been my favorite escape method, whether fiction.or nonfiction. If not for them, my life on this planet would have been totally unbearable!!

Thanks for the terrific commentary!! : )

Maria Behar said...

One more thing: I used to be an avid comic book reader until about the age. of ten. Before that, I read them right along with books. My favorites were Superman and. Batman. Around the age of twelve I discovered Turok, Son of Stone. He and his sidekick, whose name I don't remember, were Native Americans, and they found themselves trapped in a prehistoric valley full of dinosaurs. I used to immerse myself in this world and not come out of it for hours!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I thought that at times this book was sad and a little depressing but not overly so.


I too find escape in books for many of the same reasons that you do.

I also cannot imagine a life without books, also for similar reasons.

Séamus Duggan said...

I was a bit underwhelmed by this. Probably as a result of my expectations being high. Your post reminds me of a lot that was good about it, though.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seamus - I think that for me, the relative dullness of the later chapters did actually give me sense of letdown too. If only the plot had maintained the level of the earlier chapters.