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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Paperback – June 12, 2012
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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 and even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages brimming 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 equalizer 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 epicenter of comics' golden age.
But Joe Kavalier is driven by motives far more complex than your average hack. In fact, his first act as a comic-book artist is to deal Hitler a very literal blow. (The cover of the first issue shows the Escapist delivering "an immortal haymaker" onto the Führer's realistically bloody jaw.) In subsequent years, the Escapist and his superhero allies take on the evil Iron Chain and their leader Attila Haxoff--their battles drawn with an intensity that grows more disturbing as Joe's efforts to rescue his family fail. He's fighting their war with brush and ink, Joe thinks, and the idea sustains him long enough to meet the beautiful Rosa Saks, a surrealist artist and surprisingly retrograde muse. But when even that fiction fails him, Joe performs an escape of his own, leaving Rosa and Sammy to pick up the pieces in some increasingly wrong-headed ways.
More amazing adventures follow--but reader, why spoil the fun? Suffice to say, Michael Chabon writes novels like the Escapist busts locks. Previous books such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys have prose of equal shimmer and wit, and yet here he seems to have finally found a canvas big enough for his gifts. The whole enterprise seems animated by love: for his alternately deluded, damaged, and painfully sincere characters; for the quirks and curious innocence of tough-talking wartime New York; and, above all, for comics themselves, "the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could." Far from negating such pleasures, the Holocaust's presence in the novel only makes them more pressing. Art, if not capable of actually fighting evil, can at least offer a gesture of defiance and hope--a way out, in other words, of a world gone completely mad. Comic-book critics, Joe notices, dwell on "the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life." Indeed. --Mary Park --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Virtuoso Chabon takes intense delight in the practice of his art, and never has his joy been more palpable than in this funny and profound tale of exile, love, and magic. In his last novel, The Wonder Boys (1995), Chabon explored the shadow side of literary aspirations. Here he revels in the crass yet inventive and comforting world of comic-book superheroes, those masked men with mysterious powers who were born in the wake of the Great Depression and who carried their fans through the horrors of war with the guarantee that good always triumphs over evil. In a luxuriant narrative that is jubilant and purposeful, graceful and complex, hilarious and enrapturing, Chabon chronicles the fantastic adventures of two Jewish cousins, one American, one Czech. It's 1939 and Brooklynite Sammy Klayman dreams of making it big in the nascent world of comic books. Joseph Kavalier has never seen a comic book, but he is an accomplished artist versed in the "autoliberation" techniques of his hero, Harry Houdini. He effects a great (and surreal) escape from the Nazis, arrives in New York, and joins forces with Sammy. They rapidly create the Escapist, the first of many superheroes emblematic of their temperaments and predicaments, and attain phenomenal success. But Joe, tormented by guilt and grief for his lost family, abruptly joins the navy, abandoning Sammy, their work, and his lover, the marvelous artist and free spirit Rosa, who, unbeknownst to him, is carrying his child. As Chabon--equally adept at atmosphere, action, dialogue, and cultural commentary--whips up wildly imaginative escapades punctuated by schtick that rivals the best of Jewish comedians, he plumbs the depths of the human heart and celebrates the healing properties of escapism and the "genuine magic of art" with exuberance and wisdom. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
OK, the length: it's long but you won't want it to end. The characters are SO WELL WRITTEN and the story so perfectly detailed that I found it easy to put the book down for a few days if necessary and come back to it - and I never felt lost or like I needed to re-read. The story was that alive.
This novel won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and it was well-deserved, in my opinion. The author's ability to create memorable characters, scenes, and places in time is wonderful - thrilling, really. He writes with enough detail to make the story live in your head but not so much that you want to skip ahead to the dialogue. (Come on, you know we've all done that!) There are many smaller stories that drive the action and an overall arc of friendship and love. It is one of the best books I've read in years.
At whatever risk there are two major thoughts that will come back and drive this novel: Concentrate on what you are escaping toward, not what you are escaping from. And The Escapist cannot not fly.
Author Michael Chabon anchors the history of the comic book in a few concepts. The progenitor of Superman, the first of the super heroes in another creature of imagination, created by an earlier generation of preyed upon Jews, The Golem. Following this argument he personifies the history of this entertainment cum art form in the persons of American hustler and writer Sammy Clay and his cousin Jewish refugee artist Joe Kavalier. Sammy is just another New York Jew with a story that will be told in small reveals. He is like many Americans looking for that one break that will place him and his family beyond material want. Sammy has a complex history including training as an escape artist, magician and the first family member to escape from Hitler. Escape will be a word that will be a key to his life.
Early in the book they create their super hero the Escapist. A costumed avenger with the special mission to “perform amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny's chains.” They will create more characters and in so doing tell the story of much of the rise of the comic industry.
About half way into the book this plot line wears thin. This is when the Chabon magic happens. All of publishing stops being important. The entire plot shift to the adventure of living. Cavalier, Clay and Rosa Saks the female character…
Major point: Rosa is not just the love interest or the common inspiration. She is a third figure, but a character in her own right who demands respect for her role not just as an inspiration to the main two, but as a person with her heroics and weaknesses. Rosa makes her own sacrifices and mistakes. She is second fiddle in the strictest sense, but she is a lot more.
Returning to the second half of the book. Chabon presents us with the Amazing adventures of living. There is a war to be won, but it is a personal war, not one of big battles and hand to hand fighting. There is a small technical error that has a German firing a .45 instead of a Lugar, but never mind. Mostly the heroic adventures are about raising a family, continuing after success and money and coming to terms with the guilt of surviving.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is filled with asides, and deliberate diversions from the main plot. Non-issues inserted just to make you the more ready for the plot to resume. Chabon makes these techniques work. He is doing with literature what the magicians and serial comic book writers do to build suspense and fill out the panels. The magic is in the author’s ability to do in the narrative what he admires in his characters.
Let's get the technical stuff out of the way first. I was delighted when Michael Chabon's catalog finally came out in e-book format, and "Kavalier and Clay" was the first thing I grabbed. This is a fine digital copy. It seems that publishers, especially the big ones, are getting better at packaging their content digitally (remember the earlier days, with dozens of typos and weird formatting errata?) No such issues here.
Now, to the novel itself. This is one of those books that seems to exist somehow JUST under the radar of mainstream. I'm not sure why that is the case: it certainly seems to have a huge and dedicated fan base. But just try mentioning it to your friends. I bet most of them have never heard of it.
Which is a shame, because what a novel it is. Is there a more hauntingly tragic figure than withered little dreamer Sammy Klayman? A more shattered, yet hopefully redemptive one than Joe Kavalier? Is there a novel that does more to cocoon you in the sepia movie-reel nostalgia of its setting (and is there any more larger-than-life time period to set it than America in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s?) before sinking you into the nauseatingly human quagmire just below the surface?
Yes, this is a love letter to comic books, but in one sense I despise that piece of the plot because it turns off so many would-be readers ("it's about COMIC BOOKS? No thanks..."). Dismissing this masterpiece because of that element is like saying you won't support a baseball team because you don't like the color of their mascot: you're rather missing the bigger picture. Every year I give at least two or three copies of this book as gifts to various people. I've never once had one come back at me saying "it was ok, but the comic books ruined it for me."
It is not flawless. The "Radioman" section, for instance, has beautiful elements but stops the book dead in its tracks (and serves a slightly clumsy, almost roll-your-eyes-it's-so-ham-handed metaphysical purpose for one main character). Does that matter, though, when you have so much else in here that is such a marvel?