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Not life-changing, but worth the read.
on July 7, 2002
When I read this book, I didn't even know that it had won the Pulitzer Prize--there's no trace of that information anywhere on the library hardback that I read. So I was blissfully unaware that I was reading what was supposed to be a Literary Masterpiece, and I would have been surprised if I had known.
There's no doubt that Michael Chabon is a master of his craft; his writing is a mix of the matter-of-fact and flights of fantasy, and often reality is granted an additional glow of the magical. His characters are real from the start: Sammy, Joe, Ethel and Kornblum are not talking heads, but characters who are distinct and touching in their fallibility.
Probably the best aspect of this book is where it deals with art, and art and escapism are themes that are tightly woven throughout this story until they become inseparable. At first art is the means to manipulate one's personal reality, as Joe convinces himself that he is fighting the war against the Nazis by having his hero fight them in the comics; and later this idea is carried further, so that art is not only used to manipulate reality, but to escape it utterly; and this is viewed as the ultimate goal of the artist.
Another high point of the novel is its moments in which the blend of art and realism are so seamless that at first it is difficult to tell where reality ends and the art begins. These moments are consistent with the magical atmosphere that marks Kavalier and Clay's "Golden Age," as well as with the theme of art as a means of escape.
The theme of art and its relationship with escapism is the one theme that threads consistently throughout the novel. Otherwise, one might say that "Kavalier and Clay," for all its strong points, is lacking in that after the tight, virtuoso beginning, the story loses focus and eventually all sense of unity. The plot becomes somewhat convoluted in the manner of John Irving, as if Chabon is throwing oddities into the mix just to keep things interesting. Hence we get Antarctica, the oddball marriage, and the threatened jump from the Empire State Building, which feel as if they are taking place in a world apart from the rich world to which we were originally introduced as readers, which was in itself so compelling. The result is that one begins to wonder where the original story went, if this is the same book, and to wish that it had ended before the pure magic of the atmosphere became replaced with coincidence and contrived circumstance.
Another drawback to this book was Joe Kavalier himself, who was simply too much of a good thing, especially in contrast to Sammy Clay. Just when it seemed that there was nothing else that Joe could possibly be good at, something else came out to prove that assumption wrong. In comparison, Sammy comes across as a failure: his talent for writing is never vindicated in the way that Joe's talent for drawing is vindicated to the hilt from beginning to end; yet the original idea for the Escapist came from Sammy, so clearly he is not a wholly insignificant talent.
If Joe was meant to seem perfect and Sammy a failure, then this is not a drawback but a fact; but my sense of it was that somewhere, Sammy's story simply fell by the wayside to make way for Joe's. As a reader, I found Sammy a more interesting character precisely because nothing came easily to him and because he was so conflicted in every aspect of his life. Many times I found it strange that he was so unappreciated while Joe had center stage, yet this dynamic was never commented upon in the book, as if the author didn't notice it himself.
Without giving anything away, the ending was a climax of banality, and not a particularly realistic one at that. It is as if the author became tired and just wanted to get it over with--a common occurrence, but a bit hard to take after the epic scale of this novel had seemed to promise so much. While "Kavalier and Clay" is worth the read, it leaves lacunae to tease the reader, like a detailed painting that trails away into emptiness.