Book review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

December 6th, 2009 by

In the winter of 1939, Josef Kavalier stumbles into his cousin Sammy’s cramped bedroom in New York City, having escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague. They share a cigarette, and something begins: a friendship, and a partnership,that will last years. Between them they create the Escapist, a superhero who can escape from anyone and anything, who travels the world as an agent of the League of the Golden Key, helping others to escape from oppression and tyranny.

The theme could be predictable and hamfisted: in America, Josef becomes Joe, and Sammy Klayman has already become Sam Clay; they escape from their Jewish backgrounds into the mainstream American middle classes just as Joe has already escaped Prague. But escape in itself isn’t the only theme – it’s also the failures that surround it, the way Joe and Sammy, in a way very reminscent of Angels in America, fail to be anything but their Jewish, troubled selves. Sammy can’t escape from his own sexuality, Joe can’t escape from anything he’s left behind. And as a counterpoint to the escapes, there are the absences left behind: the absence of Sammy’s father, Joe living with the daily absence of his family, and later, the absence of Joe.

The language is lyrical and indulgently expansive, the moods perfectly evoked, but interestingly, there is nevertheless an appopriate comic-book aspect to the way the novel is written: events have a ka-pow! quality, especially in the earlier part of the novel. Joe bounces through a young lady’s window, to screaming, Sammy kisses his his first love on the roof of a building with thunderstorms exploding around them, and later, Joe’s adventures in the Antarctic cold, complete with grim madmen and sudden death have the overblown comic-book feel.

What to say, in the end? I wasn’t sure what to take away from this novel. It is too heavy and sad to read once, but there’s something beautiful and altering in it, and something compelling about the way history and religion are threaded masterfully throughout. It stays with you, with all its weight.

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