Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon

""You know," Sammy said, "we're, uh, we've all been really worried ... about Hitler ... and the way he's treating the Jews and ... and all that. When they, when you were ... invaded ... My mom was ... we all ..." He shook his own head, not sure what he was trying to say."
They say that the first time is tragedy, the second time farce. The third time it's a soap and no matter how many times you repeat the operation the bubbles remains on top.

This is a book with a wide scope, vividly imagined scene and the acclaim for it was led by the Pulitzer committee, who awarded Chabon the prize, and Bret Easton Ellis, who called it one of the three great books by his generation. So if I seem vaguely nonplussed, I may well be wrong.

There is certainly an epic sweep to this story, from the streets of Prague's ghetto to fighting Nazi's in Antartica; from adolescent dreams of success to an office suite in the Empire State Building. Somehow, though, no matter how surprising or vivid the incidents I still felt like I was waiting for all the detail to coalesce and for some spell to be cast. Instead I was left thinking that the elements were interesting but somewhat overstretched and that although there was a lot of detail I never felt the characters come to life.

Sometimes I distrust books / films etc that feature the Holocaust or some other such emotionally laden non-fiction history. I wonder if the book is going to make connections that will illuminate the particular event and how humans deal with tragedy or just use it as a frame that can hold up anything and give the writer a shortcut to emotion, or give a sort of retrospective frisson to mundane moments. Maybe this distrust got between me and the book.

We are introduced to Josef Kavalier's background in Prague, where the Nazis have started to move Jews around, moving one family in with another: "the families seemed not to have moved in together so much as to have collided, with an impact that hurled schoolbooks, magazines, hosiery, pipes, shoes, journals, candlesticks, knickknacks, mufflers, dressmaker's dummies, crockery, and framed photographs in all directions, scattering them across rooms that had the provisional air of an auctioneer's warehouse." Here Chabon elides the genocide by making the objects represent the people. This feels over familiar, the dead of the Holocaust are so often represented by their confiscated belongings.

Josef's family all have to make sacrifices to help get him out of the country but he is turned back at the border. Ashamed to return to his family ( "He seemed at once to swell, to pulse and burn with shame, as if his entire body were in rebellion against his behaviour, as if shame could induce the same catastrophic reaction in him as a bee's sting.") he calls on the help of his mentor in magic, who's specialty is escape artistry. He manages to spirit Josef from the country in concert with an old Golem. Finally he makes it to New York and teams up with his cousin Sam Clay (Clay / Golem - is there a connection? No). Clay's interest in comics and Kavalier's interest in escapology, mixed in with his artistic skills lead them to create The Escapist, a superhero somewhat in the style of Superman.

Kavalier has a bad case of survivor's guilt, or escapists' guilt. Hitler is the target of much of his comics energy and in some way he sees this as fighting the war in his own way and possibly helping to encourage America to join the war. But this is not enough and he has to face the constant anticipation of bad news from Europe.

The power and indestructibility of superheroes can be seen as rising from a sense of powerlessness. In the case of Kavalier his impotence in the face of the war and in the case of Clay a chance to escape from the weakness of his own legs, a result of childhood polio. This weakness is emphasised by his absent father, who is a strongman.

There is some really good writing. Here is Josef getting to know New York: "There was a humming sound everywhere that he attributed first to the circulation of his own blood in his ears before he realized that it was the sound produced by Twenty-fifth Street itself, by a hundred sewing machines in a sweat-shop overhead, exhaust grilles at the back of a warehouse, the trains running deep beneath the black surface of the street. Joe gave up trying to think like, trust, or believe in his cousin and just walked, head abuzz, toward the Hudson River, stunned by the novelty of exile."

All sorts of exile appear in the book, and the different ways people feel about and deal with exile. Sammy's parents are a case in point: "Whenever he tried to escape the fetters of his awkward, obscene English and speak with his his wife in which both were fluent, she ignored him, pretended not to hear, or simply snapped, "You're in America. Talk American."

Apart from the two main characters there are quite a few secondary characters:
Kornblum the magic teacher: ""People notice only what you tell them to notice," he said. "And then only if you remind them."

The cynical old editor, and inveterate hack, George Deasey "He seemed to have discovered in himself a tenderness - unsuspected by no one more than he - for both the cousins, but particularly for Sammy, who still viewed, as a springboard to literary success, work that Deasy had long since concluded was only "a long, spiraling chute, greased with regular paychecks, to the Tartarus of pseudonymous hackdom."

Shelly Anapol, who moves from selling novelties to comics at Kavalier and Clay's prodding, operates somewhere between respectability and elsewhere: "penning ill-concealed threats to particularly recalcitrant debtors in his creaky, vivid, half-grammatical prose in which there were hints of Jehovah and George Raft"

There is a (not quite) premonition of 9/11 suggesting that a bomb might bring down the Empire State: "The bomb was set to detonate, the caller had claimed, at three-thirty, killing everyone in its vicinity, and possibly doing harm to the fabric of the celebrated building itself."

I could keep firing quotes and incidents at you until I convinced myself that I loved the book but, despite obvious strengths I still felt uninvolved by the book. It was filled with too much that was obvious (It's not enough that ice be used as a metaphor, the character must go to the damn Antarctic) and seemed to accumulate words like an electrically charged suit collects lint. Without the electricity. It seemed a little too polite, too structured, too obviously colourful. Maybe that was the point. A disappearing world full of crosshatched caricatures in disappearing cities performing tawdry illusions for an audience who wants to believe that magic is true, but knows it isn't. "Harry Houdini" was "animated" " by this same desire, never fulfilled: truly to escape, if only for one instant; to poke his head through the borders of this world, with its harsh physics, into the mysterious spirit world that lay beyond."

 It's worth reading, and I know many will love (and have loved) it, but it left me slightly cold.


  1. Magical.
    Escapism or comic book caricature?
    Whatever, I really enjoyed this Seamus.
    The levity of the later NY narrative comes laden with an implicit gravity after the early settings of the Ghetto and Holocaust; but the quality of the writing and the strength of the characters (large and small) endures. Tragedy, soap or farce? Ultimately it's an adventure and a breathless entertainment...
    Amazed that Speilberg hash;t got hold of this...

    1. I just felt a little disappointed. Almost as if all the illusion / comics / boy's own stuff was a cover for the books failing to really make an emotional impact. Some passages read as if Chabon himself felt he wasn't quite making the grade. But I can see why people love it also. And yes, it would suit Spielberg and using animation could mix up the comics and 'reality' in interesting ways.

  2. Séamus, I was at one time very interested in borrowing a friend's copy of this book (he liked it but wasn't crazy about it as I recall); however, I have since seen it raved about by masses of not entirely trustworthy bloggers (as well as a few trustworthy ones, to be fair). Your tepid reaction will prob. allow me to postpone reading the book for yet another year without too much anxiety about it. By the way, I trust your opinion way more than I do Bret Easton Ellis'--that guy gives Elvis Costello fans a bad name!

    1. I did get the impression that Bret might only be casting the net of his 'generation' over people he'd been out with in the previous few weeks. As I never get out I have to cast my net a little further.

  3. I have to say I also rather enjoyed this, but I agree doesn't have the stuff of a great master piece. I found it really entertaining and thought it would have been a brilliant holiday read. If you're looking for something more, you should turn elsewhere though.

    1. I guess part of my problem was the expectation I had of a Pulitzer Prize winner and also the pay off I expected from the investment of time. In the end it felt like one of those Oscars which goes to a film seen as worthy and non-controversial rather than brilliant and divisive.

  4. I've never been much of a Chabon fan myself. Not since being underwhelmed by The Mysteries of Pittsburgh long ago. Maybe I was too young to know any better. Or maybe I just knew he didn't do anything for me.

    Séamus, I noticed you're on Shelfari. Would you happen to be on LibraryThing as well?

    1. I'm not on LibraryThing. (yet) Is it good? My only issue with being on multiple sites is that by the time you've checked them all it's time for bed and not a word read.

  5. I really liked this but this may have been more down to the fact that I've kept giving him a go and kept being disappointed (Wonder Boys a prime example) so went into this expecting the same sense of confusion and frustration (all his other books suffer from synopsis disease - ie they sound like they should be really good on the back cover)and came away pleasantly surprised.

    1. I came to it with high expectations so that probably goes some way to explaining the difference between us. I found this to have a bit of the synopsis disease - it seems better when thinking of what happened than it did reading the book.