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?

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

telegraph avenue“…he called what he played ‘Brokeland Creole’.”
.
😀 😀 😀 😀 😐

There are so many reasons for me to dislike this book. It’s relentlessly stuffed with references to American pop culture of the seventies – jazz, soul, funk – kung fu movies – blaxploitation – most of which were lost on me. (Though I got the Star Trek references!) It’s full of tricksy writing techniques and stunts, such as the cameo appearance of a pre-presidential Barack Obama. And it’s jam-packed with language that would make a docker blush.

But…but…it’s brilliantly written. Set in Oakland, California, I couldn’t decide whether Chabon is describing this piece of America as it really is or creating it anew, but either way he does it with such vividness and exuberance that it becomes a completely realised world with a past, present and uncertain future. There are issues of race, sexuality and gender here, all handled with a deft touch and a pleasing sense of optimism. One of Chabon’s most effective tricks is not to tell the reader straight out in the early part of the book which characters are black or white, but to leave us to gradually work it out from indirect references: a device that allows him to show the sameness of people rather than the differences and forces the reader to get to know them without letting preconceptions creep in.

“My God,” he said. “Please tell me you aren’t listening to ‘Kansas.’”

There was a small prog bin at Brokeland, but it spurned the pinnacles and palisades in favor of the dense British thickets, swarms of German umlauts. Wander into Brokeland hoping to sell a copy of ‘Point of No Return’ or, say, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (Manticore, 1973), they would need a Shop-Vac to hose up your ashes.

There is a huge cast of characters but we are mainly concerned with Archy and Nat, co-owners of Brokeland, a shop specialising in vinyl records, its existence threatened by the proposed building of a new megastore; their partners, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as midwives carrying out home-births – Gwen herself being massively pregnant too; and their teenage sons, Julie and Titus, on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and enthusiastically exploring their new-found sexuality. And then there’s Luther, Archy’s father, ex-star of ‘70s kung fu movies, ex-drug addict, down and almost out, but still dreaming of the comeback.

Michael Chabon (www.theguardian.com)
Michael Chabon
(www.theguardian.com)

The plot is slight, based around Luther’s past, the survival of the shop and the problems of the midwifery practice. Instead, the book is strongly character-driven. There are no heroes and very few total villains here – mainly just flawed people trying on the whole to do their best, if only they could work out what that was. The relationships are the important thing: fathers and sons, marriages and lovers, friendships and shared histories that bind the community into one diverse, often divided, but ultimately cohesive whole. And Chabon’s characterisation is warm and affectionate, sometimes moving, often funny.

“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”

But above all it’s the language and the writing that create the magic here – Chabon gives a virtuoso performance and the tricks are performed brilliantly, (including the unbelievably soaring sentence that lasts for 11 pages, with every word precisely placed, flying over the whole community and dropping in and out of every character’s life). There is an incredible wordiness about the book, one word never used when fifty could do, but the words take on a rhythm and life of their own and become almost mesmeric after a while. I found I was often pausing to appreciate and applaud the sheer skill of the performance. And, for most of the time, I could silence the small voice inside my head that was telling me that, underneath the dazzle and razzmatazz, nothing much was happening and nothing profound was being said…

Wonderfully written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching a master wordsmith ply his trade almost outweighs the underlying lack of substance, but ultimately this novel just misses being truly great – though it’s so impressively done it takes a while to notice that. And although the destination may be a bit disappointing, the journey is breathtaking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link