Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Michael Chabon

I've finally gotten around to reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay; the novel has been on my nightstand since early spring and I could never seem to get past the first few pages -- in part because reading anything that takes careful, precise attention to detail is difficult for me to face during the bulk of the school year. Now that I've actually been able to devote myself to it fully, I'm happy to report that it's one of the best and most captivating novels I've read recently; receiving the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, then, was no accident.

Michael Chabon, a Jewish American writer who recently published The Yiddish Policemen's Union, is probably best known for Kavalier and Clay, a novel about a Czech Holocaust refugee, Josef Kavalier, and his Brooklynite cousin, Samuel Klayman, pursuing a dream of fame and fortune as comic book writers in the early 1940s. This description does the book no justice; it makes it sound as if the novel is geared towards a small, specialized audience of acne-prone teenaged boys or history buffs with a Peter Pan complex. By the end of the first chapter, Kavalier and Clay proves to be no such novel and caters to no such group; it is a book about heart-wrenching loss, passion, self-identity, and the American Dream -- sweeping themes that align it with some of the truly Great American Novels that are read in classrooms across the country. Once the general public accepts references to homosexuality as a suitable topic for high school discussion, I wouldn't be surprised if this book began to appear in those same classrooms (and it will probably be devoured more readily by today's students than, say, The Scarlet Letter, which is usually the source for much consternation in my own classes -- but I digress).

To divulge too much of the plot here would be to ruin the sheer delight of reading the novel for one's self. In short, the novel chronicles the evolution of a comic book character whose exploits mirror, in much more grandiose and heroic ways, of course, the lives of its creators, Joe and Sam. The boys, and eventually men, wage war against the fiercely ingrained stereotypes that characterized WWII American life: what it means to be Jewish, that comic books aren't a serious enough literary venture to deal with real-life issues, what constitutes a Man and what doesn't, that women and homosexuals have no business in the business of creating superheroes. The result is a soaring triumph: characters the reader can't help but fall in love with, a plot that grabs hold of you and won't let go, a message of youthful hope that tugs at the heartstrings of even the most curmudgeonly of readers.

What is wonderful about Kavalier and Clay is that it transcends the boundaries of genre: it is, in places, a work of fantasy about magic, superheroes and epic battles; in others, a novel of historical fiction about WWII and the rise in popularity of the comic book in the mid-20th century; in still other places, a love story -- romantic love, brotherly love, love for one's country, and love for one's culture, be it genetically determined or adopted by choice. In addition, and perhaps unbeknownst to many of Chabon's readers, Kavalier and Clay follows in a time-honored Yiddish storytelling tradition as a variation on the Golem story. The symbolism of the Golem, a figure made from mud by a human (rather than by God) that soon grows beyond the control of its creator, rises quickly to the surface in Chabon's book; both of the novel's main characters, Joe and Sam, must face the ramifications of the choices they make and the lives that they build for themselves (for another variation on the Golem story, read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein).

One of the most pleasurable aspects of Kavalier and Clay is how effortlessly Chabon moves from moments of pure joy and hilarity to scenes of utter despair without ever becoming bathetic. It is easy to get lost in the descriptions of the Escapist, Joe and Sam's comic book superhero, or the awkward Klayman family dinners in which no one can stomach Ethel Klayman's horrendous cooking, so that the sudden transition to Joe's memories of Prague are even more startlingly tragic, as in this memory of leaving his family at the train station:
Josef had kept his head erect and his cheeks dry and puffed on a cigarette, resolutely affecting greater notice of the other travelers on the train platform, the steam-shrouded locomotives, the German soldiers in their elegant coats, than of the members of his own family. He kissed his grandfather's scratchy cheek, withstood his mother's long embrace, shook hands with his father and with his younger brother, Thomas...Then, as Josef was climbing into the train, his father had taken hold of his son's coattails and pulled him back down the platform. He reached around from behind Josef to accost him with a sloppy hug. The shock of his father's tear-damp mustache against Josef's cheek was mortifying. Josef had pulled away...As soon as the train pulled away from the platform, however, and Josef had settled back in the second-class compartment seat, he felt, like a blow to the stomach, how beastly his conduct had been. He seemed at once to swell, to pulse and burn with shame, as if his entire body were in rebellion against his behavior, as if shame could induce the same catastrophic reaction in him as a bee's sting...When the emigration officers came on at Eger to take him off the train--his name was one of several on their list--they found him between two cars, snot-nosed, bawling into the crook of his elbow. (18-19, Random House 2000 hardcover edition)
The pain that Joe feels, here and elsewhere in Kavalier and Clay, for abandoning his family in Prague and beginning a new life in America without them, rings true with other accounts of the guilt felt by Holocaust survivors for their lost loved ones. His range of emotions, from terror to rage to regret, is tangible and real, and we as readers join him in his sorrow and, eventually, his hope for a positive future.

The only part of Kavalier and Clay that I found disappointing was the large leap in time that occurred towards the center of the novel. The first part of the story moves luxuriatingly slowly through the nascencies of both the Escapist and Joe and Sam's partnership from 1939 to 1942; since the novel ends in 1953, Chabon had to make a chronological jump at some point in the story, but the effect jarred the smooth and effortless progression of the novel up to that point. It takes the entirety of "Part Five: Radioman" for the novel to regain its footing. Once Part Six begins, however, the novel returns to the style and pacing from the first four sections, and the ending is pleasing enough as to pardon Chabon's sins for the awkward narrative leap.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an amazing adventure of a read -- one that captivates, shocks, horrifies, and delights the reader as she tries to anticipate Chabon's next literary magic trick. I believe strongly that this novel will be remembered as one of the great literary masterpieces of this century; it is a book that captures the American spirit of individualism, optimism, and chutzpah in the same tradition as Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Superman.

final verdict: ****

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