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.