The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of the very few books I ever bothered to read twice, which is praise enough considering its mass. It surprises me now to realize it came out more than ten years ago, and I first read it the year it hit shelves and re-read it only recently. I was first skeptical about revisiting a book I loved so many years ago, but unlike so much of the ephemera I used to devote my time to, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay maintains its vitality, importance, and place in my heart. Upon opening it again, the years were swept away like so much dust.
The book follows the lives of two characters: the daring, cavalier Joseph Kavalier and his plucky, likable cousin Sammy Clay as they try to make a name for themselves in the up-and-coming world of comic books starting in the late 1930s. For comic book aficionados, Kavalier, the illustrator, is a composite of legendary pencilers like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, while Sammy Clay resembles the great early writers Joe Simon and Stan Lee. They have their own defining characteristics as well; while the book draws so much on real history from the golden age of comics, it never turns into a pastiche for fanboys.
If that weren’t enough to draw you in, Kavalier is also, at the start of the novel, an apprentice escape artist who styles himself after Houdini. It begins with his troubled adolescence in Prague with the Nazi threat not so far away. From his dreams of finding a safe home comes his love of escapism, something that will later fuel his comic career. As he struggles to learn how to carry hidden keys in his mouth and unshackle himself from chains while in a cold river, I can’t help but be reminded of the funny-yet-tragic anecdote related at the start of Closely Watched Trains where the narrator speaks of how his relative, a magician, tried to stop the Nazis by standing in front of an advancing army and trying to hypnotize them.
Kavalier does manage to free himself, but not through any simple sleight of hand. Once in America, he meets up with his cousin and they seek gainful employment in the comics industry. This is what makes up most of the book, so I won’t give any more of the plot away, except to tell you there’s cameos from real-life characters including Salvador Dali and Stan Lee.
Chabon’s style in this novel is likely to strike you, for the first few chapters, as exorbitant, flashy, and somewhat cumbersome. Chabon writes in a lush style, one that will grow on you. I’ve heard of people starting this and giving up, but I’d recommend you at least try to read it beyond the years spent in Prague. Once in New York, the story becomes compulsively readable. In terms of form rather than content, I’d compare Chabon to stylists like Bellow, Rushdie, and Nabokov. He’s the type of writer whom absolutely fills sentences. If you read it, you’ll see what I mean.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was Chabon’s long-awaited follow-up to Wonder Boys. In an interview, Chabon said the book was written partially in response to his critics who said he inevitably wrote personal and introspective novels concerning a few misfits. Here, he writes in epic mode about tons of misfits.
If you are going to commit to reading this (set aside at least two weeks) do yourself a favor and check out reprints of old comic books like the early years of Superman, Batman, and The Spirit. They will add to your enjoyment of the book, and the book will add to your enjoyment of them. Also, if you’re intrigued by comics history after this, read Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics.
To read a brief anecdote of my experience meeting Michael Chabon, click here.
For the heck of it, read my book too. It’s not related, but I’ll hawk it just the same.
To read it on Amazon for your Kindle, iPad, iPhone, or home computer, click here.
To read it on your Nook, iPad, iPhone, or home computer, click here.
For some added fun, read Michael Chabon’s site. Click here.