Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Midway through Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Halfway through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I'm as swept up by Michael Chabon's style as I am caught up in his story.

Will young Josef Kavalier, graphic artist who creates the panels for comic book hero "The Escapist," truly be able to redeem his promise, made as he escaped Prague, to rescue his little brother Thomas from Hitler's Europe?  Will his cousin and friend, American-born Sam Clay, stave off the selfish businessmen and corporate lawyers who have sought to cheat him and his partner Joe from the profits of their creation?  Has he found some kind of love at last in the radio actor who embodies "The Escapist" in both voice and form, named Tracy Bacon - epitome of Gentile All-American manhood?   Will Joe marry the lovely, spunky Rosa Luxemburg Saks, inspiration for Joe's character "Luna Moth?"

While these questions draw me onward, the style stops me time and again, just to appreciate the novel's texture.

Part of the texture is its underpinning of fact, legend, and pop culture references.  The ancient wish-fulfilling fantasy of the Golem, a clay man animated to avenge pogroms, is the ur-text for this novel about Sam Clayman and his partner Joe Kavalier, who has escaped Prague in a crate with the actual clay golem.  Subtext for the story is the sad real-life exploitation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, Jewish teens who waited their whole lives to receive more than a sliver of what their creation Superman earned for their publishers.  There's another real-life comic book connection:  When our character Joe breaks into the office of the American Aryan League, he discovers a comic book fan, reminding us of the horrible truth that Hitler and his closest minions were failed artists who drew the world into their adolescent revenge fantasies.

Chabon plays with the interpenetration of his characters' stories and the comic book universe they create.  The "origin stories" of the super-heroes mirror the histories and fantasies of Chabon's protagonists.  Sam Clayman has gimpy legs; his hero is lame, but for a magic key.  Rosa in her office job wears modest clothing and glasses, a female Clark Kent or "caterpillar girl" who will inspire "Luna Moth" (258).  One page after we read that Joe depicted "The Escapist" chained in a tank of electrified sharks, "the shark of dread that never deserted its patrol of Joe's innards rose to the surface" (180).

Chabon's narration manages to have the slightly ironic detachment of commentary on pop culture, at the same time that it exults in the purple, punning, wise-guy prose of the comics, pulps, and movies.  Here's what Joe sees from across a crowded room:
And yet in [Rosa's] 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. (237) 

The scene that follows is what Hollywood calls "meeting cute."  Rosa's entourage of young men parts stagily for Joe and Sam, and then groan at the cliched dialogue:  "Have we met?"  "I am certain I would have remembered someone like you."  It gets worse, or better:  She takes a drag on his proffered cigarette before he reminds her that it hasn't been lit, yet.  Later, describing Joe's fingers preparing a magic trick, Chabon indulges happily in a pun about "prestigious digits" (317).

I'd say that I can't wait to finish the book; but I keep taking time out to savor its pages.(Read my post about the Thrilling Conclusion.)

Michael Chabon.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Picador, 2001.

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