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Customer Review

130 of 141 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not life-changing, but worth the read., July 7, 2002
This review is from: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 22, 2009 6:30:49 PM PST
While I don't agree with your final evaluation, I do admire your fairness and clarity in laying out both the strengths of the books and its weaknesses, as you see them.

Posted on Apr 17, 2009 2:02:48 PM PDT
JGo says:
I do not agree either with your final assessment but I can see your point where the story turns away from the original atmosphere. However, I know that the kind of loyalty and support that is portrayed in this story did exist in that community at that time. To say that Joe was good at everything and Sammy was not I think ignores the fact that together they were successful. Isn't that the point of the story? I give it more stars than you did and I wish there were more books out there to captivate the reader.

Posted on Oct 20, 2009 12:11:56 PM PDT
BookLover says:
Great review and I have to say, I full agree.

Posted on Nov 21, 2009 4:42:01 PM PST
C. Dobson says:
I hate to pull out the "didn't get it" card, but there are some big things this reviewer either missed or ignored that led you to their conclusions. For instance, they call attention to Kavalier as being "too much of a good thing," meaning that the guy is not only a great artist but a magician who can pick locks and charms everyone he meets as though this was somehow incidental. It's as if the reviewer missed that Joe is the Escapist, from the original inspiration to the scenes where Joe has his own villains and his own superhuman feats to accomplish. In the same way, Sammy is obviously the 'sidekick,' which means he doesn't have quite the same mystique and occasionally looks like a doofus. But there's a lot at work in both characters and some reviewer's misapprehension that somehow these character traits are a bad thing isn't so much a criticism as personal taste. Also calling the ending a "climax of banality," in addition to being redundant, shows that the reviewer missed the point. Yes, the ending could be described as 'banal.' In fact, it is so banal it could have been dreamed up in... a comic book!

Posted on May 26, 2014 5:56:09 AM PDT
Sarpedon says:
I love you, Ilana Teitelbaum.

Posted on Jan 30, 2015 1:42:19 PM PST
Paratus126 says:
You hit the nail on the head. My thoughts exactly.

Posted on Apr 19, 2015 5:04:02 PM PDT
I've come back to these reviews having just finished the novel and Ilana's comments immediately struck me as accurate. I was drawn into the book by the superb prose, the artful and evocative metaphors, and by the vivid lives of the characters. Then, right around the time of Pearl Harbor, I felt the novel lost its deft pacing. I also agree about Sammy, that something was missing in his picture. Still, I would give the book 4 stars for the quality of the writing.

Posted on Apr 6, 2016 11:23:37 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 6, 2016 11:25:42 AM PDT
Generic Man says:
This is one of those novels where many of the details are forgotten (so probably useless-I didn't recall Kavalier joining the Army probably because it seemed too much like a MEANWHILE, IN COUSIN JOE'S WORLD card being read during an old-timey radio drama, a little contrived) but as a whole I remember it being immensely enjoyable. Even that bit about Kavalier's disappearance and secret Allied work etc. was sort of fun because America at war was a dynamic, booming place where an exceptional person, like the Bohemian illustrator and immigrant, could rise and achieve amazing things.

While Chabon maybe did choose sides here and slap the gold star on the strapping young white heterosexual American man/artist/soldier/husband (and realistically this class was the greatest beneficiary of the era by far) over the gay, awkward lifelong New Yorker and nebbish (an immortal class and most don't do too badly either), I thought it was a great dysfunctional Horatio-Alger-in-the-post-Jazz-Age tale. One man escapes the horrors of Europe's self-destruction to be reborn in America by infusing his art into the zeitgeist and then sailing that particular wave of history and enjoying/enduring the fruits of his enterprise. Another is born American but an outsider on several fronts, and struggles to assimilate like the former in order to live and work but rather than be allowed free expression beyond comic books, he comes to realize that he must conform and deny himself or, sadly, die young and gay.

I rather liked the finish... but to tie together these two concepts--forgettable details; overall better than the sum of its parts--I don't recall which man held down the fort on Long Island and which disappeared to follow his dreams. It doesn't matter I suppose. It's like a David Mamet production or a Michael Mann picture. You probably didn't buy the ticket to see how it ended.
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