Thursday, February 26, 2015

Thrilling Conclusion to Kavalier & Clay

(I just finished reading Michael Chabon's wonderful novel, and know that I've got to catch up with everything else he's done since 2000.  I reflected on the first half a few days ago in Midway Through Kavalier and Clay. I've also rhapsodized about The Final Solution in an essay called Michael Chabon's Sherlock Holmes Novel: Short and Sweet.)

In our last episode, our reflective blogger had just written about how he loved the interpenetration of comic book fantasy and the "real" lives of the comic book creators.  Little did the Blogger know what lay in store:

Reality and meta-reality merge when we read how the arch-villain The Saboteur booby traps a gala where The Escapist performs on stageWe can read between the lines to see that it's a sad sack would-be Nazi getting even with Joe Kavalier at a bar mitzvah.  The fun works both ways, in super-sizing the action, and in appreciating how plausible it all is.

Over-the-top events are made easy to believe when Sammy Clay does his patriotic duty to scan the night sky for panzers from atop the Empire State Building.  A storm is brewing, and clouds "like zeppelins" send forth lightning and sparks, on the occasion of his first kiss (ca. 372). In a novel about comic book creators, it fits.

Radioman Defeats the Nazis!  Joe Kavalier, motivated throughout the first half of the novel by anger at his impotence to rescue little brother Thomas from the Nazis, does his part for the war effort at the South Pole, with a ham radio, a crusty mechanic, and a one-eyed dog named Oyster.  In a way, it turns out to be every bit as miraculous as one of his alter-ego's adventures.  

It all fits!  Chabon contrives a comic-book climax with costume, human flight, police, orphans, every important character present.  As we approach that climax, tropes from other parts of the story double back again, as when Joe becomes magic teacher to young Tommy Clay, echoing both Kavalier's boyhood, and the origin story of the Escapist. 

After the climactic scene, Chabon takes a few chapters more to answer all the questions that have kept the story going forward, in ways that leave us feeling good, and warm, and happy to have known these guys (and the gal, Rose).

Chabon mixes in these last chapters a great deal of commentary on the relationship of the comic book world to the world of his characters.  All are "escaping" from guilt, from being "a fairy," from a loveless marriage (into Rose's romance comics).  Chabon incorporates the history of comic books here, saving for next-to-last the real-life Senate hearing on the depravity of comic books inspired by the real-life book Seduction of the Innocent by Fred Wertham.  He relays the observation that Super-heroes are all golems, all Jewish (Superman himself, from the old country, takes on a gentile identity). Comics are certainly "escapist" entertainment, as charged.

So, what's wrong with escapist entertainment?  Chabon throughout the novel demonstrates the idea that even a "cheap" genre can transform reality into art, and can be done artfully.  An earlier chapter is an essay on the topic disguised as the protagonists' attendance at the premier of Citizen Kane.  But among the most arresting passages of the novel are those in which Chabon describes an artist's work for us: all the rage that goes into Kavalier's painting of The Escapist giving Hitler a jaw-breaking punch; Rosa's turning the frustrations of her life into a romance comic about a wife at Los Alamos who discovers that "the other woman" in her husband's life is the A - Bomb, its mushroom cloud salaciously curved; Kavalier's magnum opus, a 48 chapter graphic novel about the Golem.  Nothing beats the early description of Kavalier at work drawing the naked woman (Rosa) whom he surprises in a showy leap from the fire escape through a window into her room -- so much feeling goes into the strokes of the pencil!

I read the acknowledgements with avid interest, recognizing so many of the names from my own years of comic book fandom.  Named last, and "above all," is the great comic book artist who, like Sammy Clay, finished the last years of his career working from the West Coast, who shares his initials with Joe Kavalier, the great Jack Kirby.

I must read more by Chabon;  I also need to look into the recently published bio of Kirby. [Link to my reflection on the biography of Kirby.]

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