I recently finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by the amazing and illustrious Michael Chabon. I don’t even know if I should bother reviewing this book because everything I could possibly say would just pale in comparison to the magnificent scope and breadth of this novel.
It’s a novel about many things, but predominantly it covers the rise and golden age of comic books, magic, illusion, and escapism, and World War II and the plight of the Jewish people. The story takes place in WWII era New York, focusing on the relationship and partnership between two cousins: Joseph Kavalier and Sam “Sammy” Clay (Klayman). Kavalier is a refugee, having escaped from Prague via Japan, leaving his family trapped in the gradual decay induced by Nazi occupation. Clay is a New Yorker with big dreams, chief among them making it big with his drawing schemes. Both of them are artists, but Joe is the more talented of the two with years of study under his belt (among other skills, i.e., picking locks and escaping from bonds: talents learned under the tutelage of the magician Bernard Kornblum). Sam is the story guy. Between the two of them they come up with the idea for a comic book character called the Escapist and manage to get Sam’s employer to invest.
The idea of being trapped and having the need to escape is a main theme of the novel. Joe is wracked by guilt at having left his family and dedicates all his energy to liberating them. Sam is trapped by personal demons of his own starting with his absent father and becoming clearer as the novel progresses. The Escapist liberates those who cannot liberate themselves. His actions are focused on beating down Hitler and fascism, liberally and often violently. It acts as a therapeutic outlet for Joe in his feelings of helplessness.
The history and fiction of the novel are woven effortlessly together. There is a lot in there about the golden age of comics: the rise of Superman and his ilk and the boom to get the next caped crusader out there where a lot of money was to be made. Various historical and pop culture icons are mentioned or make appearances like Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Harry Houdini. Houdini looms large as the master of escape. The surrealists and the idea of surrealism figures prominently, as well as discussions of art and the form of art. The idea of personal identity in conjunction with Jewish identity are also thoroughly examined. In particular, the story of the Golem of Prague and the creation of a safeguard for the Jewish people is revisited throughout, as well as various other examples of Jewish lore. The identity crisis looms large in comparison with what is being suffered in Europe.
There is deep internal struggle as well as external as WWII rages. There’s a love story, mystery, and intrigue! It’s a deeply engaging and fascinating read. Its length is necessary. I can’t think of a single section that was superfluous. Each flowed seamlessly into the next. The action lags a little in the middle when the characters face a separation, but it’s never uninteresting.
I highly recommend this novel, as well as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, the only other Chabon novel I’ve read (though certainly not the last). That man certainly can write!
Until next time.