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 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 1 March 2005
Loathe though I am to set myself against the weight of popular opinion, I found this book too long, too laboured and very hard work. The story and the style lacks nothing in originality, and although I enjoyed the first half, the long and languid style of prose began to bore me about two thirds of the way through.
I persevered and cannot criticize the content, the characterisation, or the peaks and troughs of the heroes' lives and careers. It is an admirable book, but the point is I felt I had to 'persevere' with it, and the best stories compel me to read until I must sleep and then I feel disappointed that it had to finish. Not the case here.
I would not recommend the reader to avoid this book. It is a 'horses for courses' read. And many will no doubt entirely disagree with my views. Decide for yourself.
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.
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.
on 3 April 2006
I am going to have to agree with one of the previous reviewers and swim against the tide of popular opinion on this one: I thought that this was just an okay book.
The premise certainly wetted my appetite: weaving the early history of comic books, two powerful central characters (one a former escape artist and jewish WWII refugee), the second world war, love, loss, magic, jewishness and sexual identity. Crikey, what a melting pot - can't fail can it? Well, yes and no.
The first half of the novel I found to be a real page turner and gets going right from the off and I found the two tandem tales of Joe and Sammy to be interesting and exciting. The development of a comic, and it's central character, is well realised and credible. The two central characters are believable and sympathetic and one really lives their lives on their shoulders.
But then Chabon begins to write 'The Great American Novel' and depicts New York as if it is Florence in the Sixteenth Century and throws in everything but the kitchen sink. The link of homosexuality and jewishness is metaphorically sign-posted like Vegas and felt very crude and sometimes simple plot twists are written as if the reader couldn't guess. The book then begins to labor and the last third is a bit leaden and it reads as if Chabon didn't know how to end it - which is a shame.
I don't know if I can wholeheartedly recommend this book because I think it is too long and should have had 200 pages edited out. It is a good story and at times is brilliant, but it is just ordinary for much of the time, hence three stars.
on 20 May 2015
This is a wonderful read, a top notch yarn about escape and people bound by their chains. Joe Kavalier escapes from the Nazis in the coffin of the Prague Golem, and winds up in Brooklyn. He befriends his cousin Sam, and the two of them create a comic book character, the Escapist to fight the Nazis for them.
Having read it over a decade ago, I did not recall all the plot points, so it was very enjoyable throughout. You can read it as a ripping yarn, an analogy for the plight of Jews during and after the war, and not worry too much about how deep it is. For me. this is Chabon's second best book, behind the recent Telegraph Avenue - which is better written, and just as entertaining.
Chabon's three early books have a homosexual character and storyline, and the one is K&C is central to the plot. I am not sure why he does this, but I am glad he doesn't do it anymore. It does not detract in any way from the tale, but it is peculiar that he felt compelled to include this 'twist.' Here, it makes sense.
For my money, this would make an amazing film, but it would be a long and bumpy one. Perhaps not, better as a book. If you haven't read it, you won't be disappointed, but you must be patient. It's long.
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 25 August 2015
Kavalier and Clay are cousins who first meet as (very) young men in 1939. Kavalier has escaped from Prague (we learn the details) while Clay's background is also sketched: polio and a largely absent father. They work in the comic book business with great success and form their first attachments to others. War comes and Kavalier serves as a radio operator in the Antarctic. They are finally reunited in the McCarthyite 1950s.
The novel is highly episodic but with recurring themes notably magic and escapist artistry. It's highly inventive and always keeps you guessing - and full of clever things. If I didn't ultimately warm to it, that's because I think I found the behaviours and decision taking of the central characters very hard to fathom. Perhaps we are not meant to understand Jisef but just go along for the ride...