Monday, September 12, 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

i have been meaning to read this book for a very long time. And i wasn't disappointed. This tale of two young Jewish men who create a comic book empire during WWII has a great blend of realism and fantasy. Josef (Joe) Kavalier escapes Nazi-occupied Prague but leaves his family behind. He manages to reach his relatives in America, among them Samuel Klayman (Sammy Clay), who discovers that Joe is a good artist, and manages to get them a chance to create a comic book. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that transition into the comic book world, though i wonder about the way these chapters always make the ekphrasis apparent by mentioning ink or pages. What would happen if the immediacy of the story of Luna Moth, for instance, was never disrupted with the revelation that the reader is reading a comic book translated into prose? The reader would still *get* it, because these characters are discussed elsewhere, but it wouldn't put neat little boxes around the events, creating a visible separation between reality and art.

There's also exploration of sexual identity and sexual politics that relates to alter egos and hidden identities. Sammy is homosexual, though he decides to hide that homosexuality and marry (the marriage itself is a complicated situation arising from Rosa's need to choose whether to abort or keep Joe's baby when he leaves to join the navy; Rosa loves Joe but won't tell him about her pregnancy, Sammy loves an actor but decides not to go to LA with him, so Rosa and Sammy marry so that they can raise the baby together. They maintain elaborate fictions to keep their life functioning, neither completely satisfied though they do value and love each other). The reactions to his homosexuality are varied. Sammy is condemned in a variety of ways: by a society where being gay is a crime leaving Sammy vulnerable to predators who wear the guise of the law, by himself because he doesn't want to be a "fairy", and then his work is condemned by senators who panic at the suggestion of homoeroticism in comic books and who see "sidekicks" as pedophilia. But Sammy's friends, his mother, even his wife have more complicated reactions that range from acceptance to careful self-imposed blind spots.

Kavalier & Clay constantly interrogates the reality of magic, through the stage performances of Josef Kavalier, the comic book superheroes, references to Harry Houdini, and the Golem of Prague. Which magic is real? Who controls the trick? When will it succeed? Kavalier's inability to pull off an escape early in the book has a tragic consequence, but he is able to escape Prague with the help of his magic teacher. The Golem of Prague is transported to prevent Nazi capture, but it is inanimate and cannot protect the Jewish people of Prague against Nazi invasion (though its transport allows Joe to get out of Prague, so its existence enables one survival. Joe experiences survivor's guilt as one after another of his relatives die or are killed during the occupation; to him this escape was a mixed blessing.).

i can't help but think about Art Spiegelman's Maus, the bleak comic book autobiography about Spiegelman's father surviving the Holocaust. Maus seems like it's missing from Kavalier & Clay because so many comic books & comic creators are mentioned. But Maus was published in 1972, after the conclusion of this novel. But when Kavalier writes a large graphic novel about the Golem, it points towards Spiegelman.

One thing that i disliked about the novel was that the reader gets to see Joe's mother's final letter, even though Joe never does. The reader receives the comfort of knowing that Joe's family did not expect to hear from him further, that they want him to move on with his life. i felt that this distance between Joe and the reader, while it created sympathy, kept the reader from getting close to Joe's violent rage against Germans. Again there's an irony that lets the reader outsmart the character, a type of distance that i have been working on minimizing in my own writing (which is perhaps why i notice it so much here, and why i feel that removing that distance would be more effective at letting the reader understand the character, because the reader would not be above or separate from the character's misreading of situations or the character's mistakes. then again, comic books often make liberal use of this irony, so it might be appropriate to a book that often becomes a textual comic. i would prefer less of it, and the letter was the moment that most pulled me out of the narrative when Joe didn't get to read its contents.).

In any case, i thought this was a good book. It addressed the anger and violence of a young person who escaped the violence in a way that i found poignant and unique because the book doesn't have a dark or morbid tone, though dark and morbid things happen frequently. Good doesn't always triumph, but there is a kind of cautious optimism that at the right place and at the right time magic works even though (or perhaps because) the world has gone to shit.

"I remember when you first got here. That first day we went into Anapol's office. Do you remember that?"

Joe said that naturally he remembered that day.

"I handed you a Superman comic book and told you to come up with a superhero for us and you drew the Golem. And I thought you were an idiot."

"And I was."

"And you were. But that was 1939. In 1954, I don't think the Golem makes you such an idiot anymore."