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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
Admittedly, the title of this book made me hesitate, thinking it was going to be similar to a "buddy flick" or focus on comic books too much. While comic books are a subject matter discussed heavily in the novel, it is by no means the true subject. The bond between cousins Sammy and Joe becomes palpable as the story progresses and the stories of their backgrounds, flawed characters, and their intriguing adventures makes them my favorite fictional characters I've ever encountered.
I also very much enjoyed the time period and locations of this novel. Beginning early in the 20th century when Superman was a new concept with immense popularity, the book takes us from the boroughs of New York City, through a World War that causes strain on our character's relationships, back to New York in a new era. I really felt like I got a grasp for living in the those times and loved the contrast to modern America.
I wouldn't suggest this for young readers, as there is profanity and some hetero and homosexual situations discussed which may bother some parents, but otherwise, I can't imagine anyone not enjoying this book if they give it a chance beyond the first few chapters.
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.