Source: Borrowed from Matt D during last week’s game night.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of those books that I had been wanting to read for a couple years, but due its length (a little under 650 pages) I could never muster the courage to plunge into it. This despite knowing that even if I didn’t enjoy it on an artistic basis, I’d get a kick out of reading a bit of the early years of comic books. And while it was great to read chapters about the main character Joe Kavalier saving Salvador Dali from drowning or Sam Clay cavorting with Stan Lee, Orson Welles and other 20th century artistic legends, I was taken by how much I enjoyed reading about Joe and Sam’s personal journeys such as the creation of their first, and most widely regarded, superhero The Escapist, and their individual attempts at escaping from lifelong issues.
Joe Kavalier may be one of my favorite contemporary literary characters, a guy marked by tragedy like one of his own heroes and one who’s personality feels distinct from anything else I’ve read. A Jewish refugee from Prague, Chabon makes Kavalier’s life one that’s always interesting to follow even when the magician/artist/one man Jewish militia becomes embittered by the fate of his family who he’s forced to leave behind. Although not as remarkable as his cousin, perhaps due to his lack of gumption for much of the novel, Sam Clay embodies the workhorse writer that the comic industry so often took advantage of in its early years, becoming more interesting as the novel progresses and Sam gains further complexity.
On reading the Author’s Note, it astonished me the level of research Chabon put into this book, and just how dedicated he was to representing the early years of an artistic medium that’s still derided by stuffy academics as kids’ stuff. He includes a bibliography long enough for a dissertation, but he never indulges in the type of lengthy exposition that some other authors are prone to after spending huge chunks of time researching niche cultures.
Evident in the book is Chabon’s love and deep knowledge of the comic book medium, both on a historic and artistic level. Chabon articulates better than most why comics occupy such an important place in America’s history, its origin as a quick cash-in quickly overtaken by writers and artists who sought to tell stories in a form not allowed by any other medium best represented in a chapter following Kavalier and Clay’s viewing of the premiere of Citizen Kane.
While I think the use of footnotes to ground fiction can be used with too much frequency, Chabon employs it with such irregularity that every fake citation or allusion to some fraud historical figure simply further invested me in the world of the novel, a world that doesn’t seem at all different from our own history than for its inclusion of the titular characters and their supporting cast.
This book is further proof of the tired creative writing 101 dictum that you should write about what you know; with the amendment that you make sure you know what you think you know. If Chabon’s other books read with half of the fluidity and panache as this one, I’ll be sure to pick them up. If it’s as long as this one though, I may just wait for another year.
Read this book if you want to read about comic book history sans the dryness of a history text. Read this book if you’d like to develop an interest in Houdini.
Next week, Howl’s Moving Castle.