The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon has been on my to-read list for several years, and despite its length, I’m glad it was chosen for September’s book club selection. As a disclaimer: I read the last 400 pages of this book in under 24 hours, during the work week. That is, those 24 hours included some amount of sleep overnight and a full day’s work. So, I may have missed some things.
I actually went into this knowing very, very little about the plot. I started reading and thought, ugh, this is about comic books and the holocaust? And it is about both those things, but they mostly provide the context within which the two main characters move and develop as people. The story follows two Jewish cousins, Sam ‘Clay,’ who grew up in Brooklyn, and ‘Joe’ Kavalier, who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe at the last possible second and has come to America to live with his cousin’s family and to try like hell to rescue his younger brother and his parents. The two immediately devise a scheme for the next best comic book – The Escapist – and pitch it successfully to Sam’s then boss, and believe they will now make loads and loads of money and all their problems will be solved (if only!). From there, we weave in and out of their lives over the course of the next 15 years or so, from about 1939 to about 1954.
The novel definitely deals with some intense subject matter, but Chabon peppers the story with enough humor that the text doesn’t feel heavy. While on a deadline for producing the next-best superhero – one to match the best-selling Superman, Chabon describes the boys’ sense of urgency: “In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, they decided to lie down for a while and waste time.”
Chabon also exposes us, or those of us unfamiliar, to the weird experience it is to be Jewish in America through all sorts of characters in the book. Not just being Jewish, but also feeling isolated, as a result of any sort of difference. Both characters suffer identity crises, and both are forced to repress certain aspects of themselves for a time. In a bit of foreshadowing in the beginning, Joe is described as
one of those unfortunate boys who became 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.
This passage encapsulates the main theme and underlying mood of the book, although each section has a distinctly different mood from any of the others. I can easily see why this won the Pulitzer Prize. I’d recommend this to almost anyone – it’s got something for everyone: comedy, tragedy, adventure, magic tricks, golems, mysteries, romance, superheros, and familial bonds. How often can you find all of that in one novel?