on 22 June 2017
I was emotionally engaged with this rich tapestry of a novel from the get go, and I don't say that very often about a book. This is a beautifully realised, lovingly researched work of art, that is both funny and serious, highbrow and lowbrow, outward looking and inward looking.
“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” spans the years from 1939 to 1954, and is an unabashedly old fashioned tale of coming of age in America during World War II and a parable of the American Dream with its promise of hope and prosperity in the intervening post war years. That's the simple version. In a nutshell, this is a story of a Jewish refugee, Joseph Kavalier, who escapes from Prague transported in a coffin with the legendary Golem. He is an expert escape artist of many talents. He leaves behind his parents, grandfather and younger brother, who he hopes will join him soon. The earliest chapters of the book take place in Prague and form the backbone of the book. Here we are introduced to Joseph’s immediate family and the loving relationship he has with his younger brother, Thomas. Here we are also introduced to Joseph’s mentor, the great Magician Bernard Kornblum, who teaches Joseph all the tricks of the trade and eventually comes up with the elaborate escape plan. He is a sort of “Kung Fu master” who fills Joe’s head with words of wisdom and points out that what matters not is what you are escaping from, rather it is what you are escaping to.
Joseph’s journey takes him to his cousins in Brooklyn, the Klaymans, where he meets his counterpart, Sammy (who later adopts the name Clay, professionally), who lives with his mother and grandmother. The two boys on the cusp of manhood form a bond straight away, and form the best of partnerships, where they enhance one another, support each other, and collaborate on a comic called The Escapist, about a super hero escape artist who fights Nazis, which is a sort of cathartic way for Joe to deal with the pain of having left his family behind.
Eventually, their talents are recognised and rewarded (Joe is the artist, Sammy has the writing ability, not to mention the moxie and business sense), but compromises need to be made both financially (bad deals are forged), and in the controversial content of the comics (Joe never backs down and Sammy of course stands by him), and The Escapist eventually becomes a radio hit.
All of this is told in the most light hearted, feel good way, during the first third of the book. The period detail is spot on, the dialogue snappy and laugh out loud funny (like the best Woody Allen film that Woody never made). Stars and artists of the time make cameo appearances (Orson Welles, Max Ernst, Dolores Del Rio). The painstaking detail about comics and their place in the pantheon of American culture is passionately realised and brought to life with vivid description.
But, it is not all light hearted and fun. There are some very serious themes running throughout, and ultimately this is a book about the most beautiful of friendships. There is a huge depth of understanding between Kavalier and Clay. In fact, it could be argued that they are the making of each other, their identities finally becoming unmasked because of their partnership and collaboration, because of their friendship. They grow up and blossom because of the impact each of them has on the other’s lives.
The central themes of this book revolve around escape and transformation, both symbolically represented by the characters they create (the aforementioned Escapist and later on the Luna Moth, another one of Joe’s creations). Escape from war, from fear, from banality. Transformation from boys to men, from European refugee to American, from artist to businessman, from comic book to graphic novel.
The most important symbol of the book is of course the Golem. Sam Clay (by virtue of his surname!) can be seen as a Golem “brought to life” when he meets Joe (and later on when he meets Tracy). It is primarily fear and lack of risk taking that hold him back, and he struggles to overcome this. The other Golem figure is of course Joe, especially later on in the book when he becomes overwhelmed by the tragedy of losing his family, and escapes further into himself and completely loses his way, haunting the streets like a ghost. His biggest nemesis is his (understandable) anger and need for revevenge, and it takes him a very long journey to finally see the futility of this. He carries a heavy burden with him.
We first encounter Rosa Sacks in the middle third of the book, when Joe literally escapes into the room where she is asleep. She, too, is an artist. She becomes the inspiration for Luna Moth. They become soul mates. And she develops a deep friendship with Sammy. The three of them become a family. This is really the most beautiful part of the book.
And then a chain of events is put into motion with tragic consequences. This becomes the pivotal moment in the book. Rosa feels directly responsible, Joe becomes misguided and sabotages his own happiness, and Sammy does a noble thing, also at the expense of his own happiness. I don't really want to say any more about the plot (I didn't want to spend too much time on this review talking about the plot in any event).
There are so many other important issues that are explored, such as fatherhood and absent fathers (both by accident and by choice), freedom of expression and censorship of art, can comics ever really be considered an art form (Michael Chabon makes a great case for this cause), and sexual liberation (a formidable challenge in 1940s/1950s America). What ultimately frees these characters from their respective shackles is love. The beauty of this book lies in its characters. They are so fully realised, so flawed, so human. This book spoke to me on a very personal level. Although my experience is not in war time, I know the pain of family tragedy and the need to escape. And, fortunately, I know the healing power of love and of creative expression. And it's a very bumpy ride.
I am astounded at some of the negative reviews of this book on Goodreads. It is not a book about comics. You don't have to be a comic geek at all to appreciate their context within 20th century American culture. The length of the book shouldn't be daunting either, as it reads so easily. However, if it is shorter books you want, then I recommend Moonglow, which has the same emotional impact as this book, in about half the number of pages.
I know there have been rumours around for a while that this book is going to be made into an HBO TV mini-series, and I really hope that if this ever happens the seriousness of the book is not lost. I wish Chabon success, he certainly deserves it.