on 25 July 2001
This is a large book but a quick read - the cover is a little off putting with its 'historical drama' typeface but it is immediately apparent that the author has some serious social comments to make. He makes you interested in characters and the world events that have formed them. More impressively he jumps between the present, the recent past and key historical moments with ease - sometimes disorientating the reader but always to positive narrative effect.
What differentiates this from other historical american novelists such as Bellow or Roth is it's magical, child-like merging of the fantasy world of the comic book with the real horrors of the holocaust. Whereas for someone like Bellow this is always there but often unsaid or unspeakable, popping up in the cracks of modern relationships (think of Herzog), here it is more explicitly dealt with, the comic book world becoming a less than subtly metaphor for world events overtaking them.
I relished the way pre-war America was evoked via comic books - the half-stolen, half original plots and superheroes, the tawdry relationship between sponsorship and 'art' etc . . . I also enjoyed the sheer scope of the novel's abmitions - covering the horrors of anti-semitism, exile, warfare, suppressed homesexuality and what makes a 'family'. This shows great breadth of research, and my only complaint is that at times this can be worn a little heavily - the potted histories of the comic book industry did however make me hungry to find out more about this archetypical slice of 20th Century American history. Furthermore, this historical and geographical leaping about can lead to the narrative being over-reliant on the fantastic coincidence to tie things together. For the most part however Chabron pulls this off, perhaps because he makes us fundamentally care about the characters in the first place.
Finally, this book did what all my favourite books have done - that is to have left me caring enough about the characters to miss them when they were gone and wanting to know that, after all they have been through, Sammy, Joe and Rosa (and little Tommy) will live the happy, somewhat less eventful but contented lives they deserve.
Like his superheroes, author Michael Chabon has pulled off an amazing feat of his own, challenging the dark forces of intolerance and elevating and empowering the little man in this terrific novel. Set in the late '30s and early '40s, the novel follows Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, and his cousin Sam Clay, creators of superheroes and producers of comic books which attack the Nazis and inspire those who oppose them. As the reader learns about the comic book industry and the sociological conditions which made comics so popular, s/he also experiences the cousins' personal frustrations as they work to gain freedom for Joe's family, deal with industry "moneymen" who take advantage of them, and search for enduring love.
No brief summary of the action, however, can begin to convey the depth and scope of this imaginative and original novel. Chabon manages never to lose sight of the Nazi menace while putting it into completely new contexts, including magic, superheroes, Houdini-like escapes, golems, and comic book characters, and ranging from Prague to New York and Antarctica (a section that could have used some pruning). It is a novel of huge scope--and it is hugely entertaining! Mary Whipple
on 29 July 2011
Michael Chabon's 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an outstanding novel. Despite being 639 pages long I did not think of it as a long book most likely because the storyline was so enjoyable, replete with humour, pathos and plenty of adventure.
The main foundation of the novel is the relationship between the two main protagonists, Josef Kavalier and his cousin Sam Clay (real name Sam Clayman) who first meet as teenagers, one night in 1939, in Sam Clay's New York bedroom. Josef has arrived, rather circuitously from Prague, his family sending him to his aunt's to escape the unrest that is developing in Europe. This journey is covered brilliantly by Chabon in the first part of the novel.
The novel continues following the burgeoning relationship between the two cousins as they discover shared interests and ambitions, with Josef becoming more accustomed to his new life in America. Both realise they have a love of comic books and it is through this media that their fortunes begin to improve. However, for Josef there is still the memory of his family in Prague and his desire to free them and bring them to safety in America is all consuming and is an integral part of the storyline.
In fact the author takes the reader through varying facets of the two characters lives as they grow older and develop differing relationships whilst retaining their inherent friendship. Furthermore, to list all the occurrences here would be unnecessary and ruin the enjoyment for future readers. Needless to say the author manages to portray these situations in a thoughtful and sometimes funny manner whilst retaining the overall charm of the novel.
Personally, I enjoy novels that have elements of true history within them whilst also portraying some of the vicissitudes of life within a familial surrounding which I felt this novel achieved. I would happily recommend this book and will certainly be reading other novels by Michael Chabon.
on 22 June 2009
You can see what Michael Chabon was aiming for in this bold novel of comic heroes and escapism. The author obviously has a fertile imagination, but if you have a fertile soil you need to be a good weeder and pruner. Prune "Kavalier and Clay" and you would have a terrific - because tauter - read. As it stands, it is a great effort: but sometimes an effort to read. So, although the basic conceit is clever, I was willing the writing to reach the same level.
There are great bits in amongst it all, but searching out those special sentences that make you look away from the page, is - and the gardening metaphor ends here - like searching for blooms in a thicket. The first half tries hard to set the pace, but is hampered by conversations between friends and associates that slow it down, being mundane and neither particularly interesting nor especially amusing. In places, you could skip pages and have missed nothing. Armistead Maupin dialogue it is not; if it was music, you might call it note-spinning.
There is a curious middle section that sticks out like a sore thumb: the bit about Antarctica that feels like a completely different piece, re-worked to make it fit but really a chunk of stand-alone writing that would have made a decent novella or long short story. When we get back to the characters after the War, some of the drive has gone. The Escapist has escaped yet again, but by that time it has perhaps happened once too often and even the author has tired of telling us how it was done. To my mind, the set piece of the-bungee-jump-that-wasn't is robbed of drama by the lengthy reminiscence that interrupts it. If this had been the theatre the audience would have been going, "Get on with it!".
The reconciliation between Sammy, Rosa and Joe is touching, but perhaps a little too pat. The conversations are designedly workaday, but then a lot of the conversations in the novel have been like that. I wanted the author finally to roll up his sleeves and reach into the guts of his characters. Another reviewer comments on the lack of authenticity in Joe's loss of his brother, and the same is true for Sammy's marriage to Rosa - we are told that it never worked, and we know why, but we are never really and truly made to feel the hollowness. We anticipate that Joe will stage a come-back but his re-appearance does not startle - it does not grip. I am sure another reviewer has said - probably about another of Michael Chabon's books (and I paraphrase) - "He never uses one word when several will do," and I know what he means.
All in all, despite my churlish criticisms, this is a valiant effort with plenty of engaging characters and a great main idea. But I can't get away from it: "Kavalier and Clay" with a red pen - shorter, punchier, and just that little bit deeper; now there would be a great book.
on 12 October 2006
This book sat on my shelf for some while before I picked it up because it is such a great big meaty thing. You need to give it a big chunk of time to really read it effectively over several days without too many interruptions. If you can give it that kind of attention you will be completely gripped.
The re-creation of 40's and 50's America was extremely good as were the central characters. Chabon tells a story well, he doesn't spoon feed you with all the facts, you start to work it out as more information is dripped to you.
There were a couple of things I didn't like. Firstly, the comic book thing got a little tedious towards the end of the book - I know this sounds mad because it is a central theme but I think I wanted more of the characters real lives to come through, too much remained wrapped in comic fantasy. I know some will say that's the point but anyway.
I also found the second half slower although enjoyable just in a different way. I wanted more magic in Prague, a longer section over there would have been fabulous because it's such an atmospheric city. Just niggly things really. It's a great read and well worth the time spent reading it.
This is the story of two young men in New York, from the 1930s through to the post-war period, who team up to create a comic-book superhero, The Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a second-generation American Jew, street-smart and full of big ideas. His cousin Josef Kavalier has just escaped from his hometown of Prague, now under the control of the Nazis, and where the Jewish population is beginning to feel the weight of the jackboot. Sammy's head is buzzing with comic-book stories and Joe can draw. When Sammy talks his boss into giving them a chance, The Escapist is created and the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has been touted as a Great American Novel. I must say both those things baffle me. There's some good stuff in here - Chabon can write, there's no doubt about that. But the book is at least a third too long, perhaps as much as half, and I felt much as I did about Telegraph Avenue, that underneath the wordy dazzle there isn't much depth. And, unlike Telegraph Avenue, the quality of writing in this one varies from sublime to extremely dull, and just occasionally all the way to ridiculous ("with skin the color of boiled newspaper" - I considered boiling a newspaper just to find out what his skin looked like, but lost the will to live before I got around to it.)
The first sections, covering Joe's escape from Prague and the two boys meeting and forming their partnership, are very enjoyable and I felt I was in for a real treat. However Chabon then drifts off into what is clearly an immensely well-researched history of the comic book industry, and falls into the trap of passing beyond interesting into info-dump territory. By the 25% mark I was seriously considering abandoning the book, but persevered to see if I could work out why it has garnered so many accolades. To be honest, I couldn't.
Joe's story, of trying to battle both American and Nazi officialdom to get his family out of Prague, should be an emotional one, but the impact of his various setbacks is engulfed by the sheer weight of words. As often happens when an author is wishing to make a point, Chabon uses Joe's unfortunate family like puppets to show the whole range of abuses the Jews suffered under Nazi rule, from the early minor restrictions of liberty to their incarceration in concentration camps, though he stops short of taking us on into the full horrors of those places. But because everything bad that happens, happens to one of his relatives, it begins to feel unreal after a while, and since we never really get to know his family as individual characters in their own right, I found myself feeling detached from their plight. Joe's own reactions to the increasing guilt and desperation he feels are much more moving, but Chabon stretches each stage out for too long, describing everything, physical or emotional, to within an inch of its life, robbing it of most of its effect.
The best sections are those where Joe and Sammy are interacting with each other. Metaphorically speaking (which I try not to do whenever possible), Joe is The Escapist and Sammy is his boy sidekick. But despite this their relationship feels authentic - their mutual regard for each other is believable and gives the book its heart. It's also via them that the most original parts of the book come through, in the descriptions of how they create and develop their comic book characters, and how Joe in particular, but with Sammy's support, uses this medium to try to shame the US into entering the war against Nazism.
Unfortunately I found the love interests of both characters less believable. Sammy takes an inordinate amount of time to work out that he's gay; one feels even in the 1940s he'd have had some idea of why he seems to be attracted to men; and, again, it feels as if Chabon is using Sammy's homosexuality to make points about the society of the time rather than it being a real, integral part of the character. And Joe's relationship with Rosa never feels as if it has any depth, somehow - in fact, Rosa, the template for Joe's creation of the superheroine Luna Moth, feels like something of a caricature herself.
There are too many points where the story feels contrived - where I found myself sighing over the obviousness of the twists. In contrast, occasional passages move beyond believability into near surreality, though never quite making it all the way there, leaving the story dangling in an awkward space between reality and fantasy. The metaphor of Joe as The Escapist is taken too far at some points, particularly in the strange and somewhat forced sequences relating to Joe's war experiences. Too often I was aware of the author's hand controlling the characters' actions to serve his own purpose, making it difficult to get a true feeling of involvement in either the characters or the story.
So strengths and weaknesses - but, for me, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, and it felt like a mammoth struggle to reach the too tidy end. And when I had, I found that I felt the long journey hadn't really been worthwhile. 2½ stars for me, so rounded up.
Joe Kavalier and his partner Sammy Clay, are comic-book creatives in New York just before America joined WWII. The novel opens with the story of Joe's journey to America which is full of danger. From the very beginning Joe is a young man who flirts with catastrophe. He almost fails to get to America in the first place, when he is stranded in Prague. Joe is shipped out on an illegal transport, hidden in the coffin of the Golem of Prague. It means a long and perilous journey, but he makes it and turns up at the house of his aunt in New York, where he meets his cousin Sammy Klaymann, who later shortens his name to Clay.
This story spans the war years and a little beyond. It is often heart-breaking, often exciting, and full of wonderful insight, especially about the place of comic books in American fiction. The stories are always about human beings, however, and this is no one-theme book. The adventures of these two admirable, though very different, men, touch on the themes of war (with a breath-taking struggle for survival in the Arctic for Joe who joins the Navy as soon as America enters the war), the striving of the boys to get improvements in their pay as all their work is indentured to their employer, love (of course), and the theme of escape. More than anything else, perhaps, escape is the touchstone, especially of Joe's early life, as he begins to learn of the exploits of Houdini, and yearns to follow in his footsteps. As with everything else, early exploits almost lead to disaster, and this too adds to the charm, sometimes rather naive, of the book.
This is an enjoyable read which encompasses most of the defining moments of two lives. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 20001 - an achievement richly deserved.
Strange, but as a former Eng Lit student it's over three years since I last read a novel. I've read plenty of books, but the last novel I read was Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, whose central character is a Jewish boy from a humble background living in Chicago.
So, Kavalier & Clay starts off with Sammy Clay, a Jewish boy from a humble background living in New York, unexpectedly one evening finding that he is sharing his bed (though not in the biblical sense) with a cousin from Prague (like Bellow's Sammler, a refugee in New York from Hitler's Eastern European rampage). They exchange pleasantries, and share a roll-up salvaged from butts in the flower pot. At this point it's looking like another tale of urban Jewish-American folk getting by against the odds.
But there's something the cousin, Joe Kavalier, isn't telling yet, and the book sucks us back, and in, and then back again, to slowly reveal the backstory to his arrival, via Japan and San Francisco, in the Big Apple.
Back to his first ever attempt to emulate his hero, Harry Houdini, in the cold waters of the River Moldau, an attempt that comes close to being the end both of him and his younger brother, and to his escape from Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia, in a not altogether conventional manner.
Thenceforward the story progresses with the development of the money-generating juggernaut Joe and Sammy unleash in the form of Empire Comics and heroes such as The Escapist and Luna Moth.
Joe turns out to be to Impulsive what Mao was to A Bit Spiteful. This leads him into all kinds of scrapes, such as breaking into the Aryan-American League HQ and picking fights with anybody who looks German, leading inter alia to a pasting by a Max Schmelling lookalike, and it is only the appearance of the female part of the story's love interest which prevents his making the error of attacking Max Ernst. Ernst is one of a number of real-life people who intrude on the action, including Salvador Dali, at the same party, Orson Wells, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who intercedes to...
No, that would be telling!
There's also an amusing aside suggesting that Sammy may have been the source for Roy Liechtenstein's signature style, and the other real-life star of the piece is New York itself, particularly the Empire State Building, around which a considerable amount of the action revolves.
Meantime, Sammy is grappling with his sexuality, mystified by his lack of interest in girls and lacking the kind of role models we now take for granted in the other direction, and which make the signposts easy for us to spot.
However, there are sinister hints that what began as a set of "adventures" is going to turn a little darker, and so it is that around the middle of the book the inevitable fall occurs. The nature of the fall is kind of predictable (though again, I won't disclose what it is). And it is around this point that the irony of the title becomes clear. This is not an Adventure story. Adventures are mildly risky, have a happy ending, and their stories can be retold lightheartedly at parties. But for Joe and Sammy there's too much hard reality crowding out the adventure, as they each have to make heart-rending decisions, and are witness to and involved in an avalanche of Misadventures, the most poignant of which is the tragicomic climax to Joe's war service.
So, what starts out as an apparent escapist tale about the creation of escapist tales becomes a lesson in life. This is foreshadowed by Joe's early disquiet at his profession, and his realisation of the futility of having The Escapist constantly kick Nazi butt in a comic strip only adds to his sense of impotence in the face of the evil stalking the world. Later in the book Joe reflects on escapism and concludes that it's all right, and that his comics help him. In the words of writer Jane Wagner, "Reality is a crutch for people who can't cope with drugs." Joe's drug is comics, but they only give him temporary release, at best.
Joe's final stunt turns out to have more comedy about it than the events in the dark centre of the book. Again, his compulsiveness contributes something to this, but it's mostly seen, by him at least, as the price he has to pay for regaining access to those he has isolated himself from.
A compulsive read this most certainly is, and the sleep you'll lose will not only be from sitting up into the small hours unable to stop reading, it will also be from the adrenaline pumping through your system.
Even before you reach the bibliography at the end of the book it is clear that the author has undertaken some serious research, into escapology, Harry Houdini, magic, comic books and their lore, art and history, and Jewish mythologies, such as the Golem that accompanies Joe from Prague and later mysteriously reemerges in Long Island, and Kaballah. This gives the story a greater depth, as does its handling of the issues of Nazism and sexual politics, especially Sammy's appearance before a congressional committee which has all the sinister overtones of McCarthyite witch hunts, with its insidious insinuations about the relationships between comic book heroes like Batman and Robin. The effect of this is similar to that of Tom Sharpe's satires on apartheid. It's funny, but not funny enough to outweigh the serious implications.
The book also raises some interesting questions about fatherhood. Who's the best father? Sammy's absentee one, Joe, or Sammy himself? The fact that Sammy has no biological children makes the question quite intriguing.
The final act left me with one final question. Is The Escapist really Sammy?
on 21 March 2013
In 1941 Josef Kavalier escapes Prague from under the noses of the Nazis and lands in the Brooklyn bedroom of Sammy Clay, who reluctantly shares his bed with a cousin he's never met before. Together the two teenagers break into the emerging NYC comics industry. They go on to invent The Escapist, partly inspired by the existing super heroes like Superman, but also by Josef's amazing flight to freedom and the eponymous Houdini. It helps that Joe turns out to be a very talented graphic artists, and Sammy an excellent story teller.
I loved the first part of this book where Josef's journey is charted, and the atmospheric descriptions of the pre-war New York in the 1940's. But the book soon begins to meander, and I was struggling to see a plot emerging. However, the language is beautiful, and when I thought, 'where are we going now' a beautiful or witty sentence would pull me back to the novel.
This is a book for boys about boys. It's a story about fathers, sons, cousins and brothers. There's only one major female character, which I must admit also made me identify with the story a little less. It didn't help that I'm also not particularly interested in comics (or graphic novels) - a major theme here.
Hence only three stars.
on 23 February 2010
Since I am not a reader who enjoys the typical Hollywood theme of heroes and villains fighting it out through the course of an all too predictable storyline, I was initially sceptical about the idea of a novel combining American comic book superheroes and Jews suffering under Nazi oppression. Surely it would be too silly and far fetched to be even readable wouldn't it?
Not at all! The plot is extraordinary, the writing sensitive and beautifully creative and its themes touching and thoroughly researched. As our two main characters Kavalier and Klay grow up in a world about to be plunged into war, they are drawn into a realm of magic tricks and comic book superheroes as a means to deal with the traumas of the real world outside. Henceforth the narrative of our characters flickers between the confused realities of the lives they are living and the dramatic fantasies of the storyboards they are drawing.
It's a long book and there are elements in it that you may find irrelevant, confusing, even distasteful; but stick with it, and like some strange trick of illusion it will all make sense in the end; although like the best magic tricks it will leave you wondering how it was done with such simplicity. Wonderful... extraordinary!