Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon

If superheroes were human, they would be…  Kavalier and Clay, so don’t let the title mislead you.  Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel really tells the story of two young Jewish men who join the comic book movement in New York at the outbreak of World War II, exiting the stage some years later after world events have shaped their versions of the American Dream with indifference.  At times digressive and the language more than often gaudy, the sentences nonetheless roll off the page in grand style telling of the heartbreak and joys of the pair.  But if embellishment seems a forte of Chabon, then his natural writing voice and powers of simile are inspired by God – or is it, Jehovah.  

Not necessarily a novel in simplistic terms (there is no natural build-up resolved in a climax), Kavalier and Clay is instead a study/history of what life was like for contemporary Jews living in New York in the middle of the 20th century.  The story begins in Prague with the exploits of the budding escape artist Joe Kavalier and his attempts at following in the footsteps of his idol, Harry Houdini, across the Big Pond.  While never wholly giving up the art, he finds other talents and better directs toward the comic book artistry after meeting up with his cousin, Sammy Klayman, in New York City.  At once a character study of a homosexual coming to terms with himself, Sammy is also a look at the struggles and triumphs of a writer of comic book pulp and his hopes for greater literary glory.  The two never achieve the world-saving, hero-of-the-day aspirations that play out in the comics they produce, but the adventures—real life adventures—which happen to them along the way are sometimes humorous, sometimes sad, and always sympathetic.  They are what make the book worthy of the praise it has received.

The novel does, however, have a few negative points that are very worth mentioning.  One of the main focuses of the book is unabashedly Judaism.  And while it’s always cultural and never religious, there are a couple moments Chabon takes the idea a bit too far, punctuating the unwritten bias with lines like “enters the grit, filth, and foul atmosphere, ripe with the stench of immigrants, Negroes and mongrels, of Empire City” (p.330).  Though Chabon also sometimes takes the piss out of Jews, this and other potentially subtle digs at ethnic groups are unbecoming.  Another glaring aspect of the novel is the info dumps.  While I don’t mind being educated while reading, it’s another thing for a narrator to change their tone in the middle of the story to directly address the audience, the hard science of space travel in the middle of Star Wars, for example.  Chabon’s relation of the history of the comic book at times just didn’t fit and would have been better more subtly worked into dialogue or narrative. 

The last major issue I have with the novel is the language.  At times astonishingly brilliant, there are other moments when it seems a little over the top, the adjective strings lengthy and nearly unreadable, seeming to go on and on forever, without an end in sight, the writing coming and coming, overwhelming the reader, forcing them to recognize that he has Midas’s touch with phrasing and syntax, beautiful sentences rolling from the tip of his pen, birds singing beneath golden rainbows - are you paying attention literary award voters - and so on.  To Chabon's credit, however, the book remains highly readable; characterization, characterization, characterization the mountain on which the book stands tall.

If you are a fan of Jewish literature, New York in the 40’s, escape artistry, sensitive and empathetic characters, or the early comic books, then Kavalier and Clay may be for you.  If you like your literary fiction with a touch of the surreal (there are more than a few moments which utilize coincidence and sheer caprice to the point the novel points toward magic realism), the this book may be for you. However, if you dislike historical novels without a lot of tension—nothing obvious to pull you along—or purple writing, then certainly steer clear; the book is a calm field of violets telling the life story of two ordinary men who want to be more. It goes without saying that if you are a fan of Chabon's other books, this will not disappoint.

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