Wednesday, January 8, 2020
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
The Golden Age of Comics and Magic
Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has garnered much critical acclaim, and deservedly so. This remarkable novel tells the story of Brooklyn boy Sammy Klayman and his cousin Josef Kavalier, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. When Joe moves in with Sammy’s family, Sammy discovers his cousin’s prodigious artistic talents and decides the two should get into the comic book business. Sammy works for a novelty products company, and he persuades his boss to back their publishing venture. The creative duo of Kavalier & Clay make a big splash in the blossoming industry with their costumed hero the Escapist, a crimefighting escape artist. The character proves to be a lucrative hit, but Joe finds it difficult to enjoy his success given the uncertain fate of his family, who have remained in Prague.
Set during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, this novel vividly depicts the period known as the Golden Age of Comic Books. The careers of Kavalier & Clay are based on the achievements of real-life comics creators like Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner. Kavalier is also an accomplished magician, and the book delves deeply into the history and lore of illusionists and escape artists. At this time both disciplines, comics and magic, were largely dominated by Jews, and Jewish culture and identity is also a recurring theme in the book. Chabon has crafted an ingenious story with a lot of fascinating period detail, but for much of the book’s length that story moves at a sluggish pace. Just when you feel yourself getting involved in the story, Chabon will go off on an extended flashback or digression that yanks you away from the main narrative. As soon as the reader meets the two aspiring creators, Chabon veers into an extended but important flashback to Kavalier’s young adulthood in Nazi-occupied Prague. Other sidetracks feel less relevant and necessary, however, such as stories of Harry Houdini or Salvador Dalí.
With so many balls being juggled, the story about the comics industry often feels lost in the shuffle as Chabon puts more emphasis on the magic angle and the Jewish experience of World War II. While the latter topic is essential to the story, the relentless focus on magic becomes obtrusive at times. Kavalier often dominates the book at the expense of Clay. In the novel’s engrossing final chapters, Chabon skillfully ties together all of the book’s myriad interests and subplots into a satisfying resolution. At times the story, however, with its farfetched departures from realism, inspires more admiration for the cleverness of its telling than it does empathy for its characters.
Despite such reservations, Chabon’s writing is a joy to read. Unlike so many other contemporary practitioners of fiction, there is nothing self-indulgent about his prose. The story is told in an articulate, conversational style that is intelligent without being pretentious. In each chapter, Chabon throws in one or two arcane words that most readers will have likely never heard before. Instead of being off-putting, however, it is actually fun (and easy on a Kindle) to look up these bizarre, little-used terms and discover their mysterious meanings.
The 2012 edition contains additional material under the heading of “Odds and Ends.” This includes two chapters that were deleted from the original novel and two short stories—epilogues, really—that Chabon wrote after the publication of the first edition. The deletion of the two chapters was a wise choice, as they don’t add much to the story. The epilogues are interesting but work against the intriguing uncertainty of the novel’s original ending. Nevertheless, whatever edition you get your hands on, The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier & Clay is a very enjoyable read.
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