The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

This is honestly a very daunting novel to review, more so to finish reading in the first place, and not just because of its 600+ pages but the quality of its prose which is painstakingly detailed in ways that are often not necessary at all. I can only think of two reasons why I could recommend reading this, and even then I could only recommend it to a specific type of people, and not to your average casual reader. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a 2000 book that is in many ways a historical fiction about the Golden and Silver Age of American comic books. This subject matter is what got me so interested in it when a good friend of mine recommended it (and purchased me a copy as a Christmas gift last year).


The paperback is actually close to seven hundred pages and is divided into six parts which chronicled the lives and struggles of cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, the titular heroes of this novel. They are aspiring comic book writers and artists with a Jewish heritage, living in an era when fascism is thriving and victimizing Europe. With this promising premise filled with daring possibilities for character exposition with lots of historical allusion, Chabon takes readers into a very vivid and verbose journey about the intricacies that surrounded these cousins and their choices. From making it big in the comic book industry and facing certain issues in the business, to the important discoveries they have made within their personal, private lives that also influenced and changed them either for better or worse.

"Comic books thrived to articulate a purpose for itself in the marketplace of ten-cent dreams, to express the lust for power and the gaudy taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves. They were pure and true, and they arrived at precisely the moment when the kids of America began, after ten years of terrible hardship, to find their pockets burdened with the occasional superfluous dime."

What I can say foremost is that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a damn mighty fine novel comparable in length and breadth to perhaps something like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy but the comparison, of course, ends there. I just want to give everyone proper context on how completely immersed, absorbing and detailed this novel was to read and enjoy, and how much it spans from one decade/era to the next since it does follow Joe and Sam from their early twenties to middle age and so on. Since it's also a historical fiction, many chapters are dedicated to lavishing the readers with expositions regarding the comic book characters created by Joe and Sam, and how they serve as allegories for the themes Chabon tackled profusely and passionately for. There is clearly a great amount of research and planning done to infuse together what is based from factual accounts with that of the fictionalized moments in Chabon's narrative he wrote in, but ultimately the result was a seamless and compelling semi-biographical examination and commentary at why Americans created and celebrated superheroes in those times. Chabon's grasp of his subject matter is impressive; he doesn't shy away from dedicated chapters to completely build a world that resembles the one we can recognize about the Golden Age of comics, while also maintaining layers of fictional liberties in doing so.

Of course, this rigorous storytelling style will not appeal to everyone's taste and sensibilities, and that is why I can't recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with the casual reader. One should at least have an enthusiasm or passion in comic books in general which I have copious amounts of. If not, then a great bulk of this novel will be alienating and baffling for you. However, if you do have an open mind and do want to explore the mythos and the kind of creative industry which comics books operate on, then The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay could be a worthwhile endeavor. The selling point of the story for me is the way Chabon got me invested and involved in Joe and Sam as characters and respective representations of a Jewish boy who immigrated to the States and wanted to help his kin escape from the Nazis in whatever way he can, and a closeted gay man who is coming to terms with his sexuality. The moments devoted to their respective character arcs are my favorite.

"He wanted them 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." 

Joe Kavalier's character arc in the beginning focuses on his superhero myth-making as an artist with a character named The Escapist, his creation with Sam. Though Sam is the one who is more of the writer of their duo, Kavalier is the one whose attachment with the Escapist runs deep since it stems from a place of both hope and despair. Successfully immigrating to the States before Nazis took over his land, Joe feels obligated to do something to make Americans and everyone else see the evils of Hitler's regime, and this translates in the stories and illustrations he collaborates with Sam who is open to it because he is very supportive of his cousin's plight. Joe wants to showcase that the Escapist is a superhero who can free himself from any bondage and hence also do the same for others. The origin story for the Escapist is nuanced, and the more Joe devotes all his creativity and efforts in turning him into a symbol akin that to a freedom fighter, the more he also gets depressed over the fact that he's living a pretty good life, earning sustainable income for his comics while his family is out there dealing with the Nazis daily. This survivor's guilt drives Joe's character throughout the novel, making him do really noble and admirable acts but reckless and temperamental things as well. Joe is a well-rounded character whose personal demons are fascinating to read about.

Meanwhile, Sam Clay struggling with his sexuality and abandonment issues offered readers a bittersweet taste of wide-eyed innocence and idealism. Sam has admired men his entire life, and it was only through meeting an actor named Tracy Bacon, who plays the Escapist for a radio show based on their comics, did Sam came to understand that he falls for men romantically. But the era in which he lives in is very homophobic and prejudiced, and Sam has to retreat emotionally from what he wants and the man he loves because to be a gay man then means opening yourself up to being terrorized, policed and even raped. The later parts of the novel reach a frightening climax when Sam was abused by a couple of FBI agents just because he was gay, and Joe finding out that his younger brother whom he was attempting to spirit away from a Nazi-populated region had perished on a ship ride to America among with other Jewish children. It got very harrowing that I was shocked about it because the tone of the novel becomes more intimate in a gruesome and disheartening way. Nevertheless, I was already devoted to these boys so I finished anyway.

"The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam; a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, a paper consumed by fire can bloom from a pile of ash. But it's all an illusion. The true magic of this broken world, however lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become thoroughly lost that they might never have existed in the first place."

At the last hundred pages or so of the book, Chabon included production notes that expand on the world he created for Kavalier and Clay. I have yet to read them all but from what I can garner so far, they are able to offer more insights on his narrative and choices of plot directions. In a nutshell, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a work of fuction I could only recommend to a chosen few, but those people are guaranteed to enjoy it nevertheless!



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