22 June 2012

Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

It was the title that tempted me first: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.  Who doesn't want to read amazing adventures?  Some of their adventures ARE pretty amazing.  (Slight spoiler: I've never read a more vivid description of survival in Antarctica.)

I read Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union a couple of years ago.  I like me a "hard-boiled" story (remember my Kenzie frenzy?) and I love "alternative history" fiction, so that was a real winner for me.  I would call K&C historical fiction. 

Here's the ridiculously short summary: a young man (Joe Kavalier) escapes Nazi Prague (the only member of his family to do so) through his bravery, a masterful plan (hidden in a packing crate with the Golem of Prague disguised as a corpse) and a mastery of magic & escapism (a la Houdini).  He arrives in New York and settles in with his aunt and his cousin (Sammy Clay).  Kavalier & Clay become a successful comic book writer & artist team.  Both Kavalier and Clay fall in love with significant others; WWII breaks out, Kavalier & Clay are separated by distance, time, and life experience, until circumstances reunite them and they can each regain their authentic selves.

Seriously, that really doesn't do the book justice. 
The characters are beautifully written, and their lives are very sad.  Despite his tremendous efforts, Kavalier's whole family are victims of The Third Reich; Clay has very different, beautifully-written, highly-relevant personal pain.  Superheroes always triumph, people often do not. 

Chabon covers a LOT of ground in K&C, including one much darker, serious theme than I expected.  Kavalier is spirited out of Prague along with the golem, a clay statue supposedly imbued with magical incantations and a mandate to protect.  But a golem isn't a far stretch to a superhero - and Kavalier & Clay (and their associates) create superheroes galore - also made from "nothing," with mystical powers, and a mandate to protect.  So, if there's a connection between the survival of Jews, particularly expressed in the imagination of comic books, it's the continuation of a theme.

He thought of the boxes of comics that he had accumulated.... that he and Sammy had filled over the past dozen years: boxes brimming with the raw materials, the bits of rubbish from which they had, each in his own way, attempted to fashion their various golems.  In literature and folklore, the significance and the fascination of golems -- from Rabbi Loew's [Prague] to Victor von Frankenstein's -- lay in their soullessness, in their tireless inhuman strength, in their metaphorical assocation with overweening human ambition, and in the frightening ease with which they passed beyond the control of their horrified and admiring creators.  But it seemed to Joe that.... the shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation.  It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something -- one poor dumb, powerful thing -- exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation.  It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape.  To slip, like the Escapist [superhero] free of the entangling chain of reality and the straitjacket of physical laws.... to poke [one's] head through the borders of this world, with its harsh physics, into the mysterious spirit world that lay beyond.  The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited "escapism" among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape.  As if there could be any more moble or necessary service in life. (p.582)

Illustration at sugarbombs.com
According to Chabon, "Comic books went to war [against the Axis] before America did." Superheroes like Captain America & Superman were able to combat Hitler in a marvelous, unrealistic, but highly-satisfying way (tying gun barrels in knots!). So much more than "BAM"!! "POW"!!  Look at Captain America waling on Hitler in the inaugural issue....

They may have been "kids' stuff," rags in their time, but today they are a respected American art, and a highly-collectable commodity. 

Avengers Assemble!


  1. A great review for a great book. The characters really mattered to me, not just the story and writing style. For fun, read his baseball fantasy "Summerlands."

  2. Thank you! There were so many things to think and say about this book, I knew I could only pick one - but I agree, the characters are extremely compelling (the "leads" and the "supporting" ;-).

    I will check out Summerlands!