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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - Michael Chabon

Comic books are all the rage now, didn’t you hear? Look at what Marvel Studios, backed by Disney, is doing: building from the ground up and expanding an entire cinematic universe spanning across different franchises. Warner Bros., dollar signs in their eyes after seeing how much bank The Avengers made, and keenly feeling the emptiness in their vaults the Harry Potter series once filled so readily, scrambles to bring to the big screen their DC universe, stuffing Batman, with possible cameos from Wonder Woman, The Flash, and maybe even Nightwing (of all people), in a Superman sequel, which should end well. Sony, to tighten their grip on Spider-Man’s movie rights, looks to have villain spin-offs in the works. Then there’s 20th Century Fox, who’s realized you have to spend money to make money, and the resultant X-Men: Days of Future Past, uniting the old cast of the original trilogy with the new one of X-Men: First Class, is reported to be their most expensive production since Avatar. No longer the shameful secret high-school outcasts ferret away in their pockets every time the popular kids saunter by, superheroes have gone mainstream. It took a while, and it wouldn’t have been possible if not for a few dudes in the 30’s who started it all. Much goes on in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but at its core, the book is Michael Chabon’s love letter to comic books.

 

Amazing Adventures, like every other book, faces the typical challenge of meeting other people's expectations for it. But if we're being totally honest, it's not really like any other book, which sits pretty in that comfy spot, away from the klieg lights and camera flashes that would decide whether its author's time to preen in the sun had come at last, or they need to slink quietly back into obscurity and lick their wounds. For his reputation, Chabon has more to overcome than most. More a curse than a blessing, that shiny gold Pulitzer-Prize sticker, handed him from on high by men in tweed suits, gracing the book's cover immediately sets it apart from other books. Try to resist the inclination as you might, even allowing for your understandable opinion that such awards are meaningless, you're going to be approaching it with stratospheric expectations. The title, with its quirky ampersand and shameless confidence promising that old-school cheese and teenage thrills, tickles our sense for the fancy and yearning for pleasant distractions. What few there is of naysayers, their thumbs-down judgments drowned out by the far louder noises of praise from the book's fans, is such as to be almost invisible. Movie rights for what many breathlessly say is Chabon’s magnum opus, tour de force, or what-have-you’s had already been snatched up before the man had even took the plunge and put down the first word. All this is to say that there's a rather lot for Amazing Adventures to live up to. The book, if it's anything less than amazing, would have some 'splainin' to do.

The story, in case you’re not already tripping over yourself to read the book due to the surrounding brouhaha, is straightforward. A duo of cousins named Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, drawing on their respective talents and experiences, join forces in 1930s New York City to revolutionize the then-boring comic-book industry, capturing the hearts and minds of the young and old alike with their answer to Superman: the Escapist. Figuring in the book here and there are Nazis, magicians, golems, superhero origin stories, shady business deals, historical people, actual supervillains, witch-hunts, a love story, and dead dogs. Come to think of it, Amazing Adventures is not that straightforward, and witnessing how the writing pieces together such disparate elements causes no end of fascination. More coherent synopses abound elsewhere, and the world needs another plot summary like Chabon needs another Pulitzer Prize. 

The general consensus goes that the first half of Amazing Adventures—where the Kavalier Clay cousins meet, more or less hit it off, become fast friends and partners, create their Superman counterpart, are thrown into the deep end of the dog-eat-dog world of the funny-book business, and conjure up more superheroes and their backstories, all of them impressively thorough, wonderfully creative, and incorporated seamlessly into the main narrative—is unambiguously the best and worth picking up the book for alone. That consensus is right on the money. The first half wowed me almost beyond measure. Joe Kavalier, a Jewish teenage boy who handily eluded the Nazis in an audacious escape attempt, with his halting English, slight culture shock, and deadpan humour, is amusing (though less so when taking into account his family's predicament). Insecure, self-conscious, and fast-talking Sam Clay, Joe's Brooklyn relative, is even funnier. Together, their weird relationship, at once cousinly and businesslike, is both intriguing and touching. Despite how the book devotes to Joe the lion's share of the spotlight, it's Sam who stands out: "Sammy got down off his stool and went over to help them admire his work." That Chabon delights in developing this character couldn’t be clearer. The dialogue is regularly entertaining and, every now and then, priceless, as in a particular scene at a cocktail party where the guests are stumped over how to rescue Salvador Dali from drowning in his own bizarre diving-suit contraption. “’Get that helmet off him!’ another suggested.” The exclamation mark, in juxtaposition with the relatively milder verb choice of “suggested,” still kills me.

The book's greatest strength lies in Chabon's sure-handed writing that, in its dazzling imagination and popping visuals, easily sweeps you along, yourself likely (myself most certainly) awash in pleasure and an intense desire to become, somehow, a third as talented. If I'm wrong to admire how he describes the state of being extremely focused as "a masturbatory intensity of concentration," then I don't want to be right. When Chabon is more solemn, his skill is no less effective and transfixing: "Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom." More than anything, I was caught off-guard not by how constantly he sent me running to the dictionary (not a very slogging task now, courtesy of my Kindle and its built-in dictionary, and my vocabulary has grown lots of words larger), but by how that sometimes didn't even turn up any results, especially for "omniveillant" and "aetataureate," words Chabon apparently coined himself. You can tell when authors are using big, scary words for showing off's sake, without regard for whether they add anything to the story. Yet here Chabon's choices of words don't seem like they came to the party overdressed. They make sense in the world Chabon has molded. But words alone do not a good book make. They have to be strung together into good sentences. This plainly doesn't cut it for Chabon, however, as more often than not, with almost prodigious powers of combining description and metaphor, he consistently blew me away with his scene-setting. Here is what he has to say about how dull things look outside: "The view out the windows was pure cloud bank, a gray woolen sock pulled down over the top of the building." When the man speaks of feigned emotions, he doesn't settle for two-bit adjectives, but takes care to make them stick: "Shock and disbelief: a pair of painted flats on a movie set, behind which lay a vast, unknown expanse of sandstone and lizards and sky." Do you know how aunts and grandmas possess that universal urge to pinch cute children’s cheeks nearly to the point of tearing those cheeks off from the rest of their faces? I harbor a similar temptation to do the same loving violence to Chabon for his affinity with words.

Then we come to the second half. How are you supposed to react when a book both impresses and underwhelms you? It’s by no means terrible, and still light-years more well-written than what your everyday writer, given months, could come up with. Amazing Adventures has brilliant writing most can only dream of imitating just passably. The book is a lovely tribute to the likes of Shuster, Siegal, Eisner, Lee, and Kirby, comic-book pioneers all. Also cool is the way Chabon mixes history with fiction, for the most part so effortlessly that one review, when it brought up an extract¹ from a transcript of the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency proceedings, had me scratching my head for a second, trying to no avail to pinpoint where in my Amazing Adventures reading I’d read that part. What was said was so absurd it had to have been Chabon who had made the dialogue up. It, however, was never in the book to begin with. What a big surprise it would be if it turned out that Dali, from the aforementioned diving-suit incident, had actually almost went out in a similar manner. The problem with the book is, compared with the preceding pages, the rest isn’t very memorable. Chabon’s writing’s quality hasn’t changed, I don’t think, and that there may have been part of what lost me: it sort of plateaued. While it doesn’t seem so bad now after re-reading it with less sleepiness, the Antarctica section got to be a real drag. As soon as one paragraph reached the end, I would literally take a short nap before continuing on to the next one. The ending, as well as the rest of the book now that I can put it into context, left me cold. 

Disappointment is best when you see it coming. When there’s barely any indication of it for an entire first half of a book, as in that of Amazing Adventures that I all but happily gulped down in a pelican’s swallow, its appearance sucks all the more to accept. Chabon, in tossing around words like “prestidigitate” and “tergiversation” (perfectly ironic of him, thinking of it now, to bust out this word) and terms like “soi-disant” and “idee fixe” (which he should be banned from using), even if I did kind of enjoy hunting down their definitions, is in enough danger of appearing overly clever. What cements that impression is that, as if concerned you didn’t understand them or appreciated them enough the first time, he can’t resist revisiting some of his attempts at originality, the more successful and genius of which he repeats, with more explanation, literally on the following page where the next chapter begins. More obnoxious still is how painfully contrived Chabon is about forcing virtually everything in Amazing Adventures to conform to its central theme of, wait for it, escape. Everyone and everything is escaping from someone or something: Joe is escaping from the Nazis; Sam is escaping from insecurity; Joe and Sam are escaping from obscurity and poverty; comic books are escaping from irrelevance; comic-book readers are escaping from boredom; magicians are escaping from straitjackets and locked boxes; golems are escaping from countries; Joe and Sam’s creativity is escaping from predictability; older Joe is escaping from responsibilities; Salvador Dali is escaping from his own idiocy. That’s without touching upon the Escapist. At this point, it can’t even be called beating a dead horse, considering that it’s well and truly pulverized now and you’re just smacking at air. It feels overdone and much too tailor-made for book clubs to get them bursting in their seats with questions regarding how this or that character exemplified the book’s main theme. I brought to bear on the book all the denial I could muster, and tried to ward off my underwhelmed feelings as best as I could, so much did I want to love it unreservedly. But there’s no escaping my initial opinions, apparently, as much as I don’t want to have them. No other book has made me feel so torn, and it confuses me. Definitely, read it for the writing, but have much lower expectations than mine about everything else.

¹The transcripts can be found here for your reading pleasure. Check out Gaines's testimony on the first day's afternoon session. You can't make this stuff up.