Michael Chabon, known for writing on gay, Jewish, American themes, sometimes all at once, lives in Berkeley. That always blows my mind a little bit—when someone famous or renowned is in my proverbial backyard. Berkeley isn’t that big! I might run into him at Trader Joe’s, for all I know. (Most recently, I also discovered that Andy Samberg and the other two guys from the Lonely Island graduated from Berkeley High, within a year or two of my cousin; and also that the grandson of my research paper topic, a sociology professor living in Lebanon in the 1930s, is like a retired architect or something here.)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001) is set against a backdrop of the Golden Age of comic books, with the two protagonists, Josef “Joe” Kavalier and Sammy Clay (né Klayman), the team behind the Superman, Batman et al contemporary THE ESCAPIST.
The book is almost absurdly readable, despite being over 500 pages and spanning two decades in the main characters’ lives. Joe, a serious student of magic, escapes Nazi-occupied Prague in the coffin of a golem. As a fellow magician and Jew, he idolizes Harry Houdini (who persistently appears as kind of a mythic figure in historical fiction, a representation of the immigrant, the Jew, the American experience, and a kind of transcendence of the realm of the physical, of the limitations of political identity; see also E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime). This is in part where the inspiration for their costumed hero, the Escapist, comes from. A superhero who can break the bonds that bind—for Sammy, his polio-afflicted legs, his claustrophobic upbringing, his homosexuality—for Joe, his utter inability to rescue the family he had to leave behind—for everyone, something different. And for awhile, he is deployed to stylishly kick Hitler’s ass (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) in the reds, blues and yellows of Empire’s comic pages.
At first, I was a little confounded by Chabon’s writing style. On the one hand, it is pleasant, simple but very well-crafted; and the story early on was shaping up to be uplifting with just a hint of tragedy.* The main characters get along well from the very start (Joe, Sammy’s hitherto unmet cousin from Czechoslovakia, is foisted into Sammy’s bedroom in the middle of the night with no warning by his overbearing mother—I was like, wouldn’t he be mad?). But things seem to go too well for them in general. Joe gets the girl. Joe is the best artist in the world. Despite being bound to contracts, they get their superhero comic book made. They become best friends (the hint of homoeroticism, at first, seemed to me unintentional; turns out it wasn’t, at least not on Sammy’s end). They make money. The Escapist is a hit.
Then, a little abruptly, things don’t go well, which is what I had been waiting for all along. The middle act (which comes about five-sevenths of the way through the book) follows Joe to Antarctica for his bizarre bit of participation in World War II. Scarred by the loss of his family, Joe gives up everything else—his best friend, his girlfriend, his life in New York—for the chance to kick literal Nazi ass. But he’s assigned to the one place he’s guaranteed to see no action. The icy landscape is rendered in detail, an alarming contrast to the flashy 1939 New York that we started the book with. “Antarctica was beautiful—even Joe, who loathed it with every fiber of his being as the symbol, the embodiment, the blank unmeaning heart of his impotence in this war, had felt the thrill and grandeur of the Ice. But it was trying, at every moment you remained on it, to kill you” (436). The base Joe inhabits, completely isolated from real combat, still manages to experience tragedy via a freak carbon monoxide-related accident (is it the new thing to depict World War II experiences that aren’t conventionally glorious or horrifying—that are instead maybe horrifyingly conventional? I’m thinking of Robbie’s septicemia in Atonement, and the fact that we never see the combat that earned him the wound).
The last part of the book deals with Joe’s re-introduction into nonpolar society, and his reunion with his friends. This part of the book feels the most real(istic): dreams have been forgotten, loves have been lost, and the setting is now a suburban Long Island cookie cutter in the early 1950s. Of course, real can be kind of boring too, and for me this was the least interesting part of the book. (Also: what was the exact nature of Sammy and Rosa’s relationship? I guess it was supposed to be kind of Pleasantville but it was perplexing nonetheless.)
Despite that, from start to finish it’s a consistently entertaining read, with some really lovely moments. The times that Chabon is describing the skill of Joe’s art, or delving into a superhero origins story, are probably the most inspiring. The world at the dawn of the comics age is thrilling. I also found the characters to be likeable, though not always accessible. Joe, despite his vengefulness—Nazis killing his family and all—seems a little too perfect (coincidentally, a charge also levied at James McAvoy’s Robbie in the film version of Atonement). Despite the fact that more of the story is told from his point of view than Sammy’s, Joe remains something of an enigma. And going back to the “things-were-going-too-well” qualm I had with the first part of the story, the entire novel – even the violence, the sex (or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Henry Miller and Philip Roth lately)—had a kind of chaste air, an innocence, even a feeling that everything would be alright. People in Chabon’s world are basically good. Who knows… it might just be his dead-on channeling of the optimism of a bygone American era?
“Finally, in the immeasurable and timeless distance, she makes out something that has the appearance of solidity, a smudge of stony gray, wavering. As she draws nearer, she glimpses a flash of silver, a ghostly stand of cypress, the plinth and columns of a temple, rough-hewn, pyramidal, at once Druidic and Babylonian, and withal vaguely reminiscent of the great institution in whose bowels she has for so long dreamed away her days. It looms ever larger, and then the spiral finally unravels around her and gives out, depositing her, clothed now only in the clasp of her wings, on the temple’s threshold. The great doors, cast from solid silver and ornamented with crescent moons, creak as they slowly open inward to admit her. With a final glance back toward the shattered chrysalis of her old life, she steps through the portal and into a high chamber. Here, in a weird radiance cast by the tails of a thousand writhing glowworms, sits on a barbarous throne a raven-haired giantess with immense green wings, sensuously furred antennae, and a sharp expression. She is, quite obviously, the Cimmerian moth goddess, Lo. We know it before she even opens her rowanberry mouth.” (271)
*There’s also footnotes. I found this a little strange, though the book is obviously meticulously researched and the footnotes’ biographical asides do lend an air of realism, down to precise dates and comic book issue numbers.