😀 😀 🙂
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
Published 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.
Certainly 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.
In 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’.
I 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.
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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?