GAN Quest: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

the amazing adventures of kavalier and klayMore is less…

😀 😀 🙂

This is the story of two young men in New York, from the 1930s through to the post-war period, who team up to create a comic-book superhero, The Escapist. Sammy Klayman is a second-generation American Jew, street-smart and full of big ideas. His cousin Josef Kavalier has just escaped from his hometown of Prague, now under the control of the Nazis, and where the Jewish population is beginning to feel the weight of the jackboot. Sammy’s head is buzzing with comic-book stories and Joe can draw. When Sammy talks his boss into giving them a chance, The Escapist is created and the partnership of Kavalier and Clay is born.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 and has been touted as a Great American Novel. I must say both those things baffle me. There’s some good stuff in here – Chabon can write, there’s no doubt about that. But the book is at least a third too long, perhaps as much as half, and I felt much as I did about Telegraph Avenue, that underneath the wordy dazzle there isn’t much depth. And, unlike Telegraph Avenue, the quality of writing in this one varies from sublime to extremely dull, and just occasionally all the way to ridiculous (“with skin the color of boiled newspaper” – I considered boiling a newspaper just to find out what his skin looked like, but lost the will to live before I got around to it.)

Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the covers shown are from this series.
Some comic books based on The Escapist were produced by Dark Horse Comics, each including a storyline written by Chabon himself. All the illustrations are from this series.

The first sections, covering Joe’s escape from Prague and the two boys meeting and forming their partnership, are very enjoyable and I felt I was in for a real treat. However Chabon then drifts off into what is clearly an immensely well-researched history of the comic book industry, and falls into the trap of passing beyond interesting into info-dump territory. By the 25% mark I was seriously considering abandoning the book, but persevered to see if I could work out why it has garnered so many accolades. To be honest, I couldn’t.

There was a humming sound everywhere that he attributed first to the circulation of his own blood in his ears before he realised that it was the sound produced by Twenty-fifth Street itself, by a hundred sewing machines in a sweatshop overhead, exhaust grilles at the back of a warehouse, the trains rolling deep beneath the black surface of the street. Joe gave up trying to think like, trust, or believe in his cousin and just walked, head abuzz, toward the Hudson River, stunned by the novelty of exile.

Joe’s story, of trying to battle both American and Nazi officialdom to get his family out of Prague, should be an emotional one, but the impact of his various setbacks is engulfed by the sheer weight of words. As often happens when an author is wishing to make a point, Chabon uses Joe’s unfortunate family like puppets to show the whole range of abuses the Jews suffered under Nazi rule, from the early minor restrictions of liberty to their incarceration in concentration camps, though he stops short of taking us on into the full horrors of those places. But because everything bad that happens, happens to one of his relatives, it begins to feel unreal after a while, and since we never really get to know his family as individual characters in their own right, I found myself feeling detached from their plight. Joe’s own reactions to the increasing guilt and desperation he feels are much more moving, but Chabon stretches each stage out for too long, describing everything, physical or emotional, to within an inch of its life, robbing it of most of its effect.

the escapist 2

The best sections are those where Joe and Sammy are interacting with each other. Metaphorically speaking (which I try not to do whenever possible), Joe is The Escapist and Sammy is his boy sidekick. But despite this their relationship feels authentic – their mutual regard for each other is believable and gives the book its heart. It’s also via them that the most original parts of the book come through, in the descriptions of how they create and develop their comic book characters, and how Joe in particular, but with Sammy’s support, uses this medium to try to shame the US into entering the war against Nazism.

As he watched Joe stand, blazing, on the fire escape, Sammy felt an ache in his chest that turned out to be, as so often occurs when memory and desire conjoin with a transient effect of weather, the pang of creation. The desire he felt, watching Joe, was unquestionably physical, but in the sense that Sammy wanted to inhabit the body of his cousin, not possess it. It was, in part, a longing – common enough among the inventors of heroes – to be someone else; to be more than the result of two hundred regimens and scenarios and self-improvement campaigns that always ran afoul of his perennial inability to locate an actual self to be improved. Joe Kavalier had an air of competence, of faith in his own abilities, that Sammy, by means of constant effort over the whole of his life, had finally learned only to fake.

Unfortunately I found the love interests of both characters less believable. Sammy takes an inordinate amount of time to work out that he’s gay; one feels even in the 1940s he’d have had some idea of why he seems to be attracted to men; and, again, it feels as if Chabon is using Sammy’s homosexuality to make points about the society of the time rather than it being a real, integral part of the character. And Joe’s relationship with Rosa never feels as if it has any depth, somehow – in fact, Rosa, the template for Joe’s creation of the superheroine Luna Moth, feels like something of a caricature herself.

Luna Moth
Luna Moth

There are too many points where the story feels contrived – where I found myself sighing over the obviousness of the twists. In contrast, occasional passages move beyond believability into near surreality, though never quite making it all the way there, leaving the story dangling in an awkward space between reality and fantasy. The metaphor of Joe as The Escapist is taken too far at some points, particularly in the strange and somewhat forced sequences relating to Joe’s war experiences. Too often I was aware of the author’s hand controlling the characters’ actions to serve his own purpose, making it difficult to get a true feeling of involvement in either the characters or the story.

So strengths and weaknesses – but, for me, the weaknesses outweighed the strengths, and it felt like a mammoth struggle to reach the too tidy end. And when I had, I found that I felt the long journey hadn’t really been worthwhile.

 

Great American Novel Quest

 

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagPublished in 2000, this really falls into the category of historical novel, and I don’t feel that it’s saying anything much about the time of writing. I also feel that it’s too shallow even about the period in which it’s set – I think Chabon tries to tackle too much and as a result doesn’t explore any one aspect as deeply as he might. Not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagCertainly the comic book theme, both in actuality and as a metaphor, feels original. But so much of the book drags rather conventionally through stuff that has been covered so often before that I can’t find it in myself to call the book overall either original or innovative. So not achieved.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagIn parts it is superbly written, but it’s inconsistent, and some huge chunks of it are frankly dull. So again, I’m afraid, not achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI think you can guess it’s not going to achieve this one. To be fair, it’s not trying to – it’s focused on a specific group – first and second generation Jewish immigrants – and on a specific bit of culture – comic books, widening out a little into art and entertainment. So no, unlike American Pastoral, I don’t think Chabon’s themes can be seen as a microcosm of the ‘American experience’ – not achieved.

* * * * * * * * *

Oh, dear! Only one flag and that one for being American! I’m afraid that this one doesn’t even rank as a great novel much less A Great American Novel. Well, that’s my opinion anyway – what’s yours?

49 thoughts on “GAN Quest: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

  1. I’m sorry to hear this one didn’t do it for you, FictionFan. I’d heard great things about it, but (as yet) hadn’t read it. The material and the premise sound fascinating; it’s just a shame that it didn’t have the depth of characters and focus that you’d want in a book like that. And to be honest, I find it hard to imagine what boiled newspaper looks like, too. No desire to find out through experimentation though… 😉

    • I had high hopes given that I enjoyed his later book, ‘Telegraph Avenue’, so much, but this one just didn’t work for me, I’m afraid. However, it clearly works better for other people since it has about a million five star reviews on Amazon. It wouldn’t put me off reading more Chabon – he can definitely write – but not for a while, I think…

  2. Humm Hmm. This has been on my TBR for ever, I think initially I heard of Chabon through Jilanne. This will no doubt get read, as it will tick many boxes of my Popsugar Challenge (well, at least 2, one of which is the Pulitzer. Hopefully by the time I get round to it I will have forgotten your review – which has inevitably moved it swiftly down the TBR pile. Oh dear. Who knows, (trying to cheer self up) maybe, if I’m VERY lucky, it will be one of those which divides, rather than unites us. A Goldfinch rather than a Harold Fry!

    • Wait a second! I haven’t read any of Chabon’s novels. I’ve read a couple of his essays (which were quite good), but no works of fiction. After reading this review, I’m very glad not to have read this one. I think my husband may have, but then it could have just been gathering dust on our shelves for some time, now….I do think he’s a smart guy, but for some reason, I’ve never read his work. One of these days, I’ll have to rectify that omission, but I won’t be doing it with this one. 😀

      • Oh , sorry, Jilanne, I was sure you had mentioned Chabon, it must have been someone else who sent me to that clicky downloady thing (searches round frantically for someone else to blame….or, who knows, say ‘thank you THANK YOU’ to some time before the next solar eclipse….

      • I much preferred ‘Telegraph Avenue’. I criticised it for lack of depth too, but the writing in it was so superb it swept me along, merrily admiring. This one was less consistent, though it had some lovely stuff in it too. But if an author wants me to read 600 pages, then they have to be worth it – either depth or great writing, or preferably both…

    • I think Sue Kitchenside tried to talk us all into this one, way back when, so maybe that’s where you’re remembering it from. Haha! Oddly, I do think it might fall into the Goldfinch category – I suspect you might enjoy it considerably more than I did. But sadly it lacks unconvincing Eastern European accents and descriptions of drunken vomiting, so don’t get your hopes too high… 😉

  3. *laughs* Shredded! I’m interested lots in the part about the skin and the boiled newspaper. I’m thinking boiled newspaper would be ferociously awful-looking, though. Lost the will to live? *laughing even more*

    You know, I’ve never read one comic book! I suppose they were neatio back in that time. (Bet Doyle read lots of them!)

    And, of course, the font is awesome.

    • I couldn’t help wondering why Chabon boils his newspapers – I feel the story of that might be more interesting than the one in the book!

      Really? I’d have thought you’d have enjoyed superhero comics! They still have quite a big following, I think – they quite often get offered on NetGalley, but it’s not the kind of thing that would work on an e-reader, I think. I used to read comics as a kid, but not superhero ones – more cartoon strips. (Sir Arthur probably inspired some of them!)

      Aww, thanks! Only took me a year…

  4. Nazis and comics – an interesting combination and one that seems to be disturbingly popular. I imagine there to be a certain niche market for that. This book sounds a bit too much like hard work for my liking, but I love your review of it. I thought the lady with the green wings might have been a picture of you, dear FF, but it seems not. Allt his talk of super heros has made me want to wear my pants outside my trousers…

    • Haha! If you knew how scared I am of moths, you’d know that bit of the book sent chills down my spine! No, I’d have to be CatWoman – but unfortunately somebody stole that idea. The book has loads of glowing reviews, although a fairly big minority felt like me too. I’m afraid if an author wants me to read 600 pages, they’d do better not to start waffling on about boiled newspapers…

      Just off to don my lycra catsuit now…

  5. I haven’t read this one and thanks to your excellent review (rip??), now I won’t have to!! I rather felt the author was a bit conflicted in his original purpose for penning this piece, or perhaps he just found himself sidetracked by something more interesting as he went along. That can happen, of course, but an astute editor should have seen the dichotomy and had it repaired. Boiled newspaper?? Who boils a newspaper?!

    • I know! I love the idea of him boiling various things to see if he can achieve skin-colour! The stuff about the comics was interesting, but he just went too deeply into the history, reeling off the names of characters and magazines and so on. Maybe if I was more interested in comics it would have worked better. But he’s clearly one of these people who loves to write and can write brilliantly – sometimes I think he just gets carried away and forgets that including every great sentence you can think of might get a bit much after a while…

  6. I’ve never been able to warm up to this local (in my area) author’s work. My first try was a short story collection, in one of which a full moon came up at something like ten o’clock in the morning. Even in science fiction that can’t happen, anywhere on Earth–it’d have to be a story about another planet, except I don’t think it could happen on any planet.

    I only got fifty pages or so into Kavalier and Klay, but from what I saw it wasn’t even intended as a GAN. Telegraph Avenue might have had that intent, and surely seemed aimed at more important social issues.

    In my few tries with his work, I’ve always felt that Chabon is so talented at the wordsmith-riffing he does that the story suffers. But I have close personal friends whose opinions I value very much who love it.

    Ah, fiction.

    • I much preferred ‘Telegraph Avenue’ – I didn’t think it was particularly profound, but he seemed to have his exuberant writing style under better control by that time, and I was nicely dazzled by his pyrotechnics. But in this one that only happened some of the time, leaving plenty of time for me to notice all the weaknesses. Sometimes I think he finds words that sound so well together that he forgets to see if they actually make sense.

      I doubt if I’d have struggled on with Kavalier and Clay if I hadn’t been reading it as part of the GAN quest, but I agree – it’s not even aiming in that direction. I find I’m increasingly baffled by why some books have been touted as GANs in their time. The Road was the same – I thought it was a much better book than this, but really couldn’t see what was GAN-ish about it.

      But, indeed! Opinions differ, and that’s half the fun of it…

  7. I liked this one a fair bit more than you did! Though I do agree that Chabon tends to do the info dump thing. Of all the books I’ve read by him, this was my favourite.

    • Certainly I’m in the minority with this one, I think. I’ve only read two of his books, this and ‘Telegraph Avenue’ and I much preferred that one. It seemed more focused and the quality of his writing seemed more consistent – and there’s no doubt he’s a brilliant wordsmith!

  8. I gave up on this one early on, but I did like Wonder Boys, which is different from the rest of his books.

    And on the topic of Pulitzer-prize winning novels, I don’t find many I like, the exception being Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s a big family saga that takes place in and around Detroit, which means I read it with a few different book clubs when I lived there.

    Hope you like your next read more!

    • I haven’t read Wonder Boys, but I did enjoy Telegraph Avenue. I’d probably have abandoned this one quite early if I hadn’t been reading it as part of the GAN quest, but I don’t think it was even trying to be a GAN really.

      Recently the Pulitzer seems to have been going for mammoth books – I can’t help wondering if they’re mistaking quantity for quality! But the Booker seems to be going down that path too recently…

      Thanks! So do I! 😉

  9. FF, this is so spot on, I am amazed at your skills. I agree with all your points. I read this years ago and was torn between the great writing and the contrived nature of the plot, the metaphors, the social statements, etc. The only thing that felt real to me was Sammy and Josef’s friendship. And the info-dump was the toughest section to get through! The entire book was work to read. I only got through it because I didn’t trust my own opinion. I kept waiting for that ah-ha moment that never came, but it DID teach me a great lesson — trust your instincts and read what you love. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile…great writing doesn’t always mean great book.

    • Aw, thanks, DD 😀 I often think that books look more popular than they really are because reviewers on the whole tend to prefer reviewing books they enjoy. Even I won’t usually review a book if I abandon it having read less than 50%, so the worst books get no rating from me at all. Often when I’m less than enthusiastic about a book that it seems is loved by all, I get comments from loads of people saying they agree with me, including complete strangers on my Amazon reviews, and it makes me wonder why people are reticent about writing negative reviews. I think it’s to do with what you say – people not trusting their own opinion and thinking they must be missing something…

      Ooh, sorry! Got a bit serious there!! 😉 Having said all that, there’s no doubt Chabon is a wonderful wordsmith, if he could just learn to cut out all the unnecessary bits…

  10. You know, the “boiled skin” description reminded me that sometimes writers reach too far for a metaphor or simile and end up creating a monster that takes the attention away from the story. Kill those little darlins before they make it into print.

  11. I’ve been waiting for this review since I saw the cover pop up in your sidebar!
    I completely agree with everything you’ve written here. I can’t remember the back half of this book outside my own feelings of boredom/disappointment. There have been Pulitzer winners I’ve liked less than others, but this is the one that has always left me scratching my head. His info-dump is impressive for the breadth of research it shows, but since he can’t work it naturally into the narrative, it’s a wash.

    The trouble with Chabon is that he’s good in short doses, but he’s so long-winded. The main frustration I had writing my review of The Final Solution was finding quotes that exhibited how/why I don’t like him. 99 times out of a 100, pulling a random sentence made him look like a brilliant writer! In fact, the irrational part of my brain is re-reading the quotes from your review and clamoring to re-read Kavalier and Clay EVEN THOUGH I know that it feels like a homework assignment x100. EVEN THOUGH I know I fully agree with your assessment.

    I actually put Kavalier and Clay on my 2015 list a few months ago. I don’t know why. Maybe I should save it for last and work up to it somehow? What’s the book equivalent of training for a marathon?

    • It took me ages to get around to writing the review – I’ve got such a backlog at the moment! Haha! Yes, I know exactly what you mean – I looked for some quotes to show why his verbosity had annoyed me in this one but, taken out of context, every sentence sounds great. I’d have to quote a thousand words to show that it’s the sheer quantity of great individual sentences that begins to make me feel as if I’ve been buried in mud!

      I haven’t read many recent Pulitzers – just this and The Goldfinch, and I felt almost exactly the same about it – too long and not as profound as it thought it was. They seem to be going for quantity over quality, a pattern the Booker seems to be following unfortunately.

      No! Just quietly remove it from the list when no-one is looking – I won’t tell anyone! Just think, then you’d have room to read The Way Things Were (Aatish Taseer) just as long but three times as deep!

  12. Thanks for another brilliant review of a book that had been hovering on my wishlist but now is definitely removed. I was interested to see how well this part of history translated into this format, from what you say I’d hate it; this one has now been removed.

    • Haha! I definitely think I should set up as a TBR reduction service! You’ll have gathered I’m not recommending this one to anyone really, though I do think Chabon is a great wordsmith. But if he could only learn to focus a bit more and cut out all the unnecessary bits…

  13. My comic books were really rather girly and I’m not sure American. My Nana used to get them delivered and I’d read them there. I can’t for the life of me remember what they were called. But it was a long time ago! I don’t think I’ll be putting this on my TBR. The premise sounds interesting but as you say, 600 pages, it needs to be good, hold pace and interest. And couldn’t he think of anything other than boiled newspaper? Was she disintegrating?

    • It was the Bunty and the Judy in my day, and of course the Beano and the Dandy! For some reason I never got into Superman and Batman comics – I don’t even really remember my brother getting them very often. Yes, I found the book far too long for its content – I don’t mind a long book if it holds my attention…

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