The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Posted on October 14, 2012
There’s a weird banality to certain adjectives. “Cool,” belched the effusive teenager. “Excellent,” texted the self-consciously excited twenty-something. “Awesome,” exclaimed the non-age-specific person in reference to something a consensus of people deemed good. In league with these adjectives are words like “actually,”: an adverb that has no real purpose except to confirm a sense of unexpectedness. I actually don’t like “actually” that much, even though I actually end up using it an awful lot.
And then there’s “amazing.” The word “amazing” isn’t like the others. Usually, it’s amazing. I can’t tell you why this is. It’s probably because “amazing” carries connotations of unqualified goodness, paradigmatic grandeur, and exceptionality. If something is “amazing,” it is far above the realm of “awesome,” “excellent,” and “cool.” It is amazing. Period.
This is why, I am sure, Michael Chabon included “amazing” in the title of his novel–not simply to inspire visions of excellence in the minds of book store browsers, but as a way of truthfully advertising the quality of his work. Lest you think he’s being hyperbolic, I dare you to read this novel and call it merely “cool.” Birthdays are cool. Jon Bon Jovi was cool. Jon Bon Jovi’s birthday is neither cool nor uncool. This novel is amazing.
The protagonists (there are two of them, though much of the action concerns only one) are Josef Kavalier and Samuel Klayman. At the beginning of the novel, Josef (Joe) is a young boy living in Prague on the eve of Word War II. He’s enamored with magic, and apprentices under a local magician named Bernard Kornblum who teaches him how to pick intricate locks. Joe is lucky to escape from Prague in a rather unconventional manner (a process involving a real-life golem, a cleverly altered coffin, and a plus-sized suit). He finds himself in New York City, living with his aunt and young cousin, Sam. Joe and Sam soon discover that they’re both comic book junkies, and they decide to go into business together, creating and distributing a series of comic books which has as its protagonist a figure named The Escapist.
What follows is pure magic. Chabon weaves in and out of the narratives of his protagonists’ lives and the comic books they create. The line between reality and animated fiction is blurred, sometimes to the point of metafiction. Joe draws The Escapist, and in doing so seeks to liberate himself and his family from the very real oppressive forces of the world. He becomes a crusader, fighting–sometimes literally–Nazi fascism, and ultimately, the more pernicious force of existential despair. Sam gradually comes to terms with his identity as a gay man in society hostile toward gay men. By the end of the novel, he allows himself to hope for happiness–something he dared not dream of as a young man.
There are moments in this novel that are so poignant you will be moved to tears. And if you are a word geek, you’ll immediately appreciate the fecundity of Chabon’s vocabulary; I think of myself as possessing a fairly large lexicon, but I had to look up words every couple of pages. Chabon doesn’t handle dialogue especially well, but he more than compensates for that with evocative description. Reading his portrayal of New York City in the 1940s, you can hear the hum of the city, smell the bright scent of an autumn afternoon, and taste the reckless energy of unhampered capitalism: hope and despair simmering in a stew of freshly-inked comic books and jazz.
In a word (taking “amazing” off the table), this novel is epic. Just when some plot line gets stale, some character’s actions too predictable, or some setting so well delineated as to become prosaic, Chabon throws in a twist. He skirts the boundaries of magical realism, concocting some truly surreal and disturbing scenes. But his narrative is penned with the same rampant confidence that his protagonist displays in prodigiously inking comic book art. This is a novel written by an author at the top of his game. Read it and weep. Read it and rejoice. Read it. Actually read it.