Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Like the comic books that animate and inspire it, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is both larger than life and of it too. Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses, even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages lurid with longing and hope. Samuel Klayman–self-described little man, city boy and Jew–first meets Josef Kavalier when his mother shoves him aside in his own bed, telling him to make room for their cousin, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague. It’s the beginning, however unlikely, of a beautiful friendship. In short order, Sam’s talent for pulp plotting meets Joe’s faultless, academy-trained line, and a comic-book superhero is born. A sort of lantern-jawed equaliser clad in dark blue long underwear, the Escapist “roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains”. Before they know it, Kavalier and Clay (as Sam Klayman has come to be known) find themselves at the epicentre of comics’ golden age

Review by Erastes

Well, perhaps I’m not as intelligent as the Pulitzer Prize-winner panel (no argument there) and perhaps being English had an affect on me reading this book, but it left me completely blank I’m afraid. Tom Paine says on the cover that “no book had made me cry more,” and I say… what? where??

So yes – the book didn’t move me, and that makes me an exception, but WHY didn’t it move me?

I suppose I was expecting “Amazing Adventures,” for a start. Perhaps the title is supposed to be ironic, and I can see that it’s obviously an affectionate reference to the comic book genre that the book represents but I didn’t find anything particularly “Amazing” in anything that these men got up to. Granted, Joe escapes from Prague in a quite unlikely fashion and he has about a week of adventure during his war-service in Antartica – but otherwise? Not so much. It’s simply a tale of them dreaming about comic books, drawing comic books, selling comic books and that’s about it. Perhaps I was already cynical with the Amazing title. Give me hyperbole such as “The League of Amazing Writers” and I’m already in Esme Weatherwax mode with my arms folded, thinking “Oh YEAH? Show me what you got.”

It starts very promisingly, with Joe’s escape from Prague and some rather lovely flashbacks involving Joe’s brother, experiments in Escapism and talks with his tutor – but once it gets to America and we deal with two person’s POV – that’s when it all fell flat for me. I never got sufficiently into the head of either character to understand anything about them, and that was frustrating in a novel which apparently had moved people to floods of tears.

There’s so much telling and very little showing. We are told how Joe is mourning for his family but we are never shown much manifestation of this other than wanting to beat up Germans; we are told how Sammy has struggled against “being a fairy” but we aren’t shown this either. He has an affair with a radio star and various other affairs are subtly alluded to (once) from his wife’s point of view but we are shown nothing of his struggle and apparent feelings of entrapment. The device of skipping forward 12 years after the war helps to create a barrier between the reader and the action, because as far as we can see Sammy has been doing a good job being a husband and father. If he’s been unhappy then this simply isn’t hinted at. His son is pretty well adjusted and his wife isn’t weeping into her coffee every night. This seems more unbelievable when you realise that the marriage is really only two people living together – good friends only. Where’s the angst?

There’s no doubt that the man can write, and I’d be a fool to say he can’t. It’s very readable and I read on simply because of this – not because I had the slightest interest what was going to happen next. In fact it seemed pretty obvious how the book was going to end, even from quite early on due to the clunky manner the way things were set up.

I admit that a lot of the mysticism and Jewish metaphor probably passed me by, the whole Golem thing was a bit of a mystery to me, the significance of the box that is delivered to the Clay’s at the end was baffling too – so perhaps I just missed the entire point.

I have to say that I liked the insight into the “Golden Age of Comics” and that was the most absorbing part for me; but even that didn’t entirely convince me, it all seemed a little sanitised, despite the author attempting to convince me of the long days of work, the smoky atmospheres and crowded conditions. There’s no camaraderie that I would imagine these young authors and artists would have had as they blazed their genre across America, and little sense of the growing fanaticism that comics engendered. There’s one nutty fan who objects to The Escapist bashing Nazis, but even that fizzles out and comes to nothing much.

I also liked the “Escapism” theme that runs throughout – everyone seems to be running from something, but frankly, the author didn’t paint in enough character detail for me to care deeply enough as to whether they did or not and as a consequence I closed the book with a feeling of “so what?” rather than any kind of emotion at all. Deeply disappointing, but I’d be interested to hear other people’s views.

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6 Responses

  1. Well, you know me. As soon as I see Jewish and gay in the same review, I at least have to check it out.
    This seems such a departure from Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” still sitting on my bookshelf. I confess I’ve hesitated to read that one because of the quite negative reviews I’ve read regarding Chabon’s (apparently) ambivalent feelings towards his Jewish heritage. Yet, judging by your review and the close to 600 reader reviews on Amazon, there seems to be a sea change in this story.
    I do tend to utilize reader reviews for at least some guidance when selecting a book and I respect Erastes’s reviews in particular.
    Erastes writes:
    “I admit that a lot of the mysticism and Jewish metaphor probably passed me by, the whole Golem thing was a bit of a mystery to me, the significance of the box that is delivered to the Clay’s at the end was baffling too”
    Not having the full context of the scene, I can only speculate from a knowledge of the legend of the Golem. In tradition, there are several ways that the Golem is made “inactive”. One is by removing the parchment with G-d’s ineffable name from the Golem’s mouth. Sometimes it’s burned, but often it is sealed up in a container to be used again when needed. There is another tradition that the name is inscribed on the Golem’s forehead and then erased to turn him immobile.
    The Golem was created to save the Jews. His power lay, ultimately, in the power of G-d’s name. There are quite a few stories about the Golem. You might consider him a Jewish Superman.
    Is it mentioned anywhere in the book that, again, traditionally, the Golem was created in Prague?
    Even with the less than stellar review, the book sounds like something I might find interesting.
    Maybe I should read *this* one first before “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”!

  2. I came away from this novel feeling just about the same way, not to mention feeling a little stupid for not recognizing why it won a Pulitzer Prize. I could not get emotionally involved with the characters.

  3. Just reading “Amazing Adventures” now, and blogging about it. I was a bit taken aback by the gay thing. Is this a legitimate gay novel?

  4. been blogging about it at http://lit-critter.blogspot.com if anyone is interested.

  5. I’m not really sure what legitimate gay novel means, but it does have a gay theme, and is historical, so it qualifies for this blog – at least!

  6. I adored this novel for many of the reasons you state, but especially the Golden Age history. Chabon has stated the characters are based on the real people who made comics such a long-term ‘fad’. I started my reading life with golden and silver age comics, so could relate well to the characters, to the Nazi theme and to the real life adventures of making a go in comics at any time.

    The golem is the spiritual superhero of the novel and is especially important since the founders of the golden age were largely jewish, they being banned from the ‘higher’ circles of literary and artistic pursuits. I don’t have a Jewish perspective of the Golem legend, but have read about it and know enough that the novel reminded me of what I might have forgotten.

    You found the characters flat. One could say this appropriate as comic character are largely flat. But, I found them both likable and well rounded. That perhaps comes from my interest in the history of comics and maybeI just filled in the blanks. I strongly identified with both K&C, C as a superhero and a founder, K for his orientation. K&C become the superheroes of comic creation, which is real, and an amazing adventure in itself.

    In a sense tAAoK&C brought to me the fact that comics are and always have been Literature.

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