the great punch thrown to Hitler's face on the cover of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

  • Author:  Michael Chabon
  • Rank:  #34
  • Published:  2000
  • Publisher:  Random House
  • Pages:  639
  • First Line:  “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”
  • Last Line:  “When Rosa and Joe picked it up they saw that Sammy had taken a pen and, bearing down, crossed out the name of the never-more-than-theoretical family that was printed above the address, and in its place written, sealed in a neat black rectangle, knotted by the stout cord of an ampersand, the words KAVALIER & CLAY.”
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize; National Book Critics Circle Finalist; PEN/Faulkner Finalist
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  in production hell
  • First Read:  Fall, 2000

The Novel:  John Updike’s Rabbit books and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio reminded me how much I wanted to be a writer and how much I felt I could accomplish.  In a way, Kavalier & Clay took that away from me.  It’s not that it’s so brilliantly written, though it is:  “He didn’t tell them what he now privately believed: that Josef was one of those unfortunate boys who become escape artists not to prove the superior machinery of their bodies against outlandish contrivances and the laws of physics, but for dangerously metaphorical reasons.  Such men feel imprisoned by invisible chains – walled in, sewn up in layers of batting.  For them, the final feat of autoliberation was all too foreseeable.”  It’s that this is the novel I wish I had written.  And it has already been written.

I grew up as a comic book geek.  I wasn’t content, like in those long-ago days described in the novel, content to pop down to the local store and see what I could discover in the spinners.  I did that at first, but I couldn’t always find what I wanted.  So I would take longer and longer bike trips, all the way across the city, to the comic shops, every Friday to try and find the series I was collecting at the time.  And I loved the Golden Age.  I collected All-Star Squadron and anything having to do with the Justice Society.  The lore of comic books was what I loved so much – the lore that is approached with love and care throughout the novel.  You don’t have to love comics; hell you don’t even need to like comics, in order to appreciate the depths and wonders of this novel:  “And yet in her eyes there was something unreadable, something that did not want to be read, the determined blankness that in predator animals conceals hostile calculation, and in prey forms part of an overwhelming effort to seem to have disappeared.”  But, if you like comics, if you love comics, if the words The Golden Age say something to you, then this is your War and Peace, the great epic story of how it all happened and what became of those boys who created legends:  “Both titles had, as Sammy had once predicted, killed; and Joe had soon found himself responsible every month for more than two hundred pages of art and wholesale imaginary slaughter on a scale that, many years later, could still horrify the good Dr. Fredric Wertham when he set about to probe at the violent foundations of the comics.”

But, of course, this is also so much more than that.  This is the story of the Nazi invasions of Europe, of the systematic destruction of centuries of culture and life:  “Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dusts on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom.  Stoicism and an eye for detail would avail them nothing.”  It is the story of a crazy time in a crazy city at the time that Europe was battling amongst itself, slowly emerging into the primary city of the world:  “Since its completion, the Empire State Building, a gigantic shard of the Hoosier State torn from the mild limestone bosom of the Midwest and upended, on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria, in the midst of the heaviest traffic in the world, had been a magnet for dislocated souls hoping to ensure the finality of their impact, or to mock the bold productions of human vanity.”  But it is Chabon’s masterful prose that brings all this together, in a world with a farther reach of culture than those derisive of the comic industry would expect: “The near death of a world-famous painter in a diving accident, in a Greenwich Village drawing room, contributed an unimpeachable Surrealist luster to the party.”

This is, quite simply, the story of two remarkable young men.  They are cousins, united in New York, where one has longed to escape the dirty streets of Brooklyn and one has escaped the spectre of death filling the streets of Prague.  Yet, in the creative mind of one and the artistic talent of the other springs a character to rival the great names that are quickly filling comic books across America: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Flash, Captain America, Sub-Mariner.  This one is the Escapist, and he comes to life through a telepathic connection among two young men who share nothing and everything at the same time:  “He ran his mind back over the last half hour of conversation and, as if he were picking up a transmission direct from Sammy’s brain, saw in his own mind the outlines, the dark contours, the balletic contortions, of a costumed hero whose power would be that of impossible and perpetual escape.”

In those days, comics were barely thought of as a commodity; they certainly were not conceived in any sense as art.  But, in the shadow of Citizen Kane, in the emerging war, they manage to become much more than anybody had conceived at the time:  “The urban dreamscapes, the dizzying perspectives, the playful tone, and the bizarre metamorphoses and juxtapositions of Little Nemo in Slumberland all quickly found their way into Joe’s pages for Luna Moth.  Suddenly the standard three tiers of quadrangular panels became a prison from which he had to escape.  They hampered his efforts to convey the dislocated and non-Euclidean dream spaces in which Luna Moth fought.  He sliced up his panels, stretched and distorted them, cut them into wedges and strips.”  That line also contains a footnote which explains what would happen when the artwork was first pressed into book form.  Chabon has a masterful knowledge of how the comic industry evolved, how it managed to become much more than a waste of the dime in a kid’s pocket and he presents all of this very much how it happened.  Because in terms of the novel, this really did all happen.  This is just the story of one of the companies in the Golden Age, the creation of their greatest character, and what happened to them when the fifties took over – not the benign Fifties of Happy Days, but the dark days of McCarthyism and the Wertham hearings, when a young man, struggling to deal with who he is, finds himself challenged on television:  “He allowed the world to wind him in the final set of chains, and climbed, once and for all, into the cabinet of mysteries that was the life of an ordinary man.”

It comes down to this: either you will read it or you won’t.  Your view on comics might influence you one way or the another, but it really shouldn’t.  If you love comics, you should have already read it.  If you hate comics, well, what does that matter when you have lines like this:  “The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash.  But everyone knew that it was only an illusion.  The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.”