The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
Ok, so I did a miserable job of catching up on reviews over my spring break. In fact: TOTAL FAIL. The next few months are likely to remain slow around here as well. It’s too bad, because there are a ton of books I can’t wait to write about! But, busy busy busy yawn. You know how it is. Please bear with me!
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a multi-generational epic which follows the careers of cousins Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier as they build their own comic books empire. Joe comes to stay with Sammy in Brooklyn after fleeing eastern Europe as a teenager in the thirties, and they quickly combine their talents of storytelling and drawing to create the first Jewish superhero: The Escapist. The Escapists’ struggles are an obvious (but apt) metaphor for their own, and his ass-kicking provides the cousins with a much needed outlet of expression for their fears, rage, and hope in the face of European totalitarianism and Nazism.
Throughout the eyes and growth of Sammy and Joe we see the rise of the Golden Age of comics, the horror of World War Two, and the complexity of Jewish-American identity formation. The metaphor of escape artistry as Jewish experience was a really fascinating one, and was enacted in a variety of ways throughout the book–not just in the comics. This consistent underlying theme in a book of this length could have easily become tired in the hands of a lesser writer, but Chabon kept it interesting, even when a bit overstated. Plus, there were a decent number of sub-plots that were fun, not distracting (with the exception of Joe’s army exploits), and helped to maintain the momentum of the story.
That said, though, the book really didn’t need to be as long as it is (over 600 pages). The length definitely detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the story. Though I never considered abandoning it and was usually absorbed while reading, it was difficult at times to make myself pick it up again after taking breaks. Also, I was so excited about the introduction of Rosa Saks, which came a bit late, in my opinion (like, a few hundred pages in)…she was basically the only real female character in the book: smart and imperfect and a great counter to all the one-dimensional sex-selling female comic book characters drawn by the Boy’s Club men of comic book artists. But I was really disappointed to find that, though an innovative and eccentric painter herself, all she cared about was Joe and how much he loved her and when they were going to get married. Even toward the end, when she does finally start to sell her work, she focuses exclusively on formulaic “women’s love stories” that don’t seem very interesting even to her and contributes only peripherally to the Kavalier and Clay franchise. I would have liked to see Rosa pursue her own artistic goals in a way that did not demean her talent and develop interests and relationships that didn’t involve Joe (or any man–imagine that!).
So, mainly, I did enjoy the book a lot. Chabon has a really vivid imagination and a unique writing style. Manhood for Amateurs has been on my radar for a while now and, though completely different from The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I’m sure, I’m now convinced I want to read it. He’s got some interesting things to say about Jewish identity, and I’m hoping to find out how, for him, that impacts his experience of masculinity. But, the Rosa Saks thing and the length did bug me, so this is your fair warning about those things if you decide to invest your time in this one.