The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: A Novel by Michael Chabon (New York: Random House, 2000. 704 pp)
One of the most celebrated writers of his generation according to The Virginia Quarterly Review, Michael Chabon was born in Washington D.C. He earned his B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.F.A from the University of California, Irvine. Chabon published his first novel, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, from his master’s thesis at the age of 25. His third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won Chabon the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. He is married to poet Lollie Groth.
Magic takes many forms. It’s sleight of hand during a friend’s card trick. It’s entertainment on a cruise ship. It’s a trick. Magic illustrates the cruelty of the world where deception reigns supreme. Magic represents a world where we hope for something more but really we’re just facing a hollow existence. In a way, it represents the way we feel about our work, our relationships, and the systems governing us all. We want to believe, but it always feels like a trick to keep us focused on the wrong thing for just another minute.
And yet, magic also defines the indefinable. It’s a way of explaining the portions of life we just don’t understand, like love, power, and joy.
Even though Michael Chabon tells a story circling around World War II and the despair of the holocaust through the motif of the comic book business, the central metaphor of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay surrounds magic.
Kavalier & Clay
At its core, this book lives through its main characters, Josef Kavalier and Sammy Clay. As cousins, the duo become close friends after Joe traverses the Atlantic upon gaining passage to the United States. Joe’s family, part of the Jewish diaspora that call Prague home, has begun to encounter the racist discriminations of fascism. While Joe is lucky to have booked passage to America, he feels guilty for leaving everyone behind, especially his younger brother Tommy.
Sammy is a much simpler equation on the surface; he holds dreams of grandeur.
“But like most natives of Brooklyn, Sammy considered himself a realist, and in general his escape plans centered around the attainment of fabulous sums of money” (7).
The Funny Books
Much like many American youth, Sammy sees a life pursuing his dreams and making lots of money doing so. Forming an immediate connection with his cousin, Sammy learns of Joe’s prodigious artistic talents and quickly hatches a plan to get into the comic book business.
“In 1939 the American comic book, like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory, was larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant. It aspired to the dimensions of a slick magazine and to the thickness of a pulp, offering sixty-four pages of gaudy bulk (including the cover) for its ideal price of one thin dime” (74).
With many venture capitalists looking to replicate the success of Superman, Joe and Sammy gain entrance into the competitive field with “The Escapist,” a magician superhero capable of evading peril and applying tough love to the evil Axis powers, especially Nazi Germany.
After hordes of comic-hungry youth swallow up The Escapist, Joe and Sammy are veritable stars in the comic industry, even if their success mostly lines the pockets of their superiors such as Sheldon Anapol.
Fighting In Absentia
But Joe and Sammy don’t necessarily mind. They are paid well for their work compared to their peers. Plus, they have a deeper calling behind their work. With Europe caught in turmoil, the duo can channel their rage into their stories.
“He wanted Anapol to understand the importance of the fight, to succumb to the propaganda that he and Sammy were unabashedly churning out. If they could not move Americans to anger against Hitler, then Joe’s existence, the mysterious freedom that had been granted to him and denied to so many others, had no meaning” (172-173).
Plus, the more The Escapist sells, the more Joe can save and the sooner he can navigate the bureaucratic waters that might lead his family out from underneath the oppression of fascism.
Magic resides underneath the entire plot. Not only is their superhero, The Escapist, a magician at heart, but Joe also studied magic in his youth and continues his pastime in America, performing in Bar Mitzvahs around New York.
Magic, as a metaphor, describes the well-developed characters and the purpose behind the plot. In many ways, the point of magic is deception—a concerted effort directing attention elsewhere while the trick occurs.
No matter how transformative comics may be, they are a poor substitute for the change Joe and Sammy hope to achieve. As World War II rages on, Joe particularly faces diminishing returns as his work does little to alleviate his lugubrious family situation.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay offers a deep and compelling story with pristine writing. Despite the weighty topics and the “hustle” component one feels when encountering magic, this book is truly excellent. If you enjoy good writing, intriguing plots, and touching characters, go read this book.
Verdict: 5 out of 5