Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I thought that this book would take me longer to read, so I had planned on an alternative blog to fill in the gap between College For Free and News and Human Rights. However, this book is amazing, and I read the bulk of it in about five days. I think, eventually, I will write you all a blog explaining in detail why Animorphs was the greatest series ever written. But that's for another time.
Another side-note: I'm thinking of calling this section of the blog Spoiler Alert.

Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a fantastic book to read if you're a writer and you want to understand just exactly how bad and amateurish you are. One thing that I couldn't help as I found myself reading a Pulitzer Prize winner, was to wonder just exactly what made this novel so good as to deserve the lofty award. I believe I got my answer. The scope of this novel, the attachment one feels towards the characters, the twists and turns and parallels and layers upon layers upon layers in terms of theme are all astounding.
First of all, this novel spans about 15 years, from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s, also known as the Golden Age of comics. Joe Kavalier is a Jewish refugee from Prague who managed to escape the country in spite of Nazi intervention by hiding in the casket of the Prague golem. Kavalier and his teacher have dressed up to look like an Aryan man so the Nazis will let it through. I should also mention here that Kavalier's teacher doesn't dabble in math or social studies, he is in fact a magician and an escape artist, and it is only through being the apprentice of an escape artist that Kavalier is able to escape to America, but I'll come back to that later.
Kavalier manages to get to America where he is to stay with his aunt and his cousin by the name of Sam Clay (actually Sammy Klayman, which is interesting because the golem is a man literally made of clay.) Kavalier and Clay become instantly inseparable in a way that I think only works in a novel. Because so much of a novel takes place inside the head of the reader, and every little thing doesn't need to be shown or spelled out, certain liberties can be taken in the pages that I don't think can necessarily be taken in other art forms. Namely, you are expected, even in the most serious of novels, to suspend your disbelief at times. Kavalier and Clay's relationship is, when you get right down to it, a touch unbelievable. They never disagree, even when millions of dollars are on the line over unreasonable, emotionally based decisions. They never fight or resent each other, and there is plenty of good reason for it. In short, Chabon crafts a perfect friendship between these two men, and instead of cheesiness and unbelievable forgiveness, you are left with something better than reality.
There are a million points to discuss and I could spend an hour plot-summarizing this 636 page novel, but what I think is the most interesting point is that of the Escapist, the premier superhero among the dozens that Kavalier and Clay create as an artist and writer respectively. This fiction within fiction, the creation of a comic book hero by the protagonists of a novel, is just excellent. The reader can watch as Sam Clay's polio-shriveled legs become a limp in the walk of the Escapist's alter-ego Tom Mayflower. Also, it becomes clear that the name Tom is taken from Kavalier's brother Thomas, and Mayflower is inspired by Kavalier's journey to America.
The Escapist, as a fictional character, serves a lot of purposes in the lives of the two protagonists, specifically in the life of Joe Kavalier. As the animator, Kavalier has the most control over how bloody the pages of their comic can be, as as he and Clay turn their aggressive fantasies towards Nazi Germany, the images become exceedingly violent. It is through his widely-circulated vicious art that Kavalier feels he can at least in some way fight the Germans, who are thoroughly wrecking his shit back in the homeland. However, when he hears the news of his father's death due to poor living conditions, fighting fictional Nazis isn't enough, and Kavalier takes to the streets of New York looking for a fight, or rather about a dozen fights, with any German he happens to make eye-contact with. It is through one of these expeditions that he comes upon the American Aryan League, a one-man operation in a small, pathetic office, the purpose of which is to spread German pride, hatred for Jews, and to disparage the anti-German sentiment of the comic book industry, namely that of the Escapist. Kavalier does what any Nazi-hating, badass comic book artist would do, and trashes the place, leaving a calling card as the Escapist for an extra touch of surrealism. However, this man is a comic book fanatic, and in response to being attacked by a comic book hero, he assumes the name of a comic book villain and uses this alias to commit a few minor crimes throughout New York City.
So here, we have fiction within fiction coming to life and actually becoming the characters. Kavalier draws the Escapist, and then he becomes the Escapist, and his fictional battle becomes a real one. This point is first really underlined when, in the middle of a magic show (remember, Kavalier is an escape artist and a magician) at a bar mitzvah, the Saboteur strikes, attempting to detonate a pipe bomb in order to kill all the Jewish children. This real life face-off is made more surreal by Kavalier's attire, which is meant to look like the Escapist, complete with mask, as an added layer of mystery to his act.
Surreal moments like this litter the novel. Sam Clay, a homosexual, ends up in a doomed relationship with the man who plays the Escapist once it becomes a radio program. This man, Tracy Bacon, looks like the Escapist as well, and becomes yet another strange literal version of what began as fantasy.
While there are parallels to be observed in Sammy's story, it is Kavalier who remains the most obvious example. As an escape artist, his signature move is escaping reality. As the comic book industry thrives in the 40s and Kavalier and Clay are putting away a ton of money (though not nearly as much as the comics are actually earning) Kavalier manages to pay for his brother, along with 15 other boys, to come across the ocean on a large rescue-mission type boat with 300 other refugees. When the boat is attacked and sent to the bottom of the ocean by a German U-boat, Kavalier enlists in the army so that he can kill actual Germans, because killing them on paper is no longer enough.
I should note here, that at an emotional peak of the novel where all of the lives of our beloved heroes are falling apart, we get one of the best lines from the commander of the German U-boat, which was part of a number of roaming submarine squads known as wolf packs. When the commander is asked if he would've fired on the boat if he would've known that it was full of children, he responds "They were children, we were wolves."
Unfortunately, Kavalier is unaware that is girlfriend is pregnant when he leaves, and in the tradition of people becoming other people and leading secret lives in this novel, Sam Clay marries Kavalier's girlfriend Rosa and raises the child as his own for the next twelve years.
Kavalier does eventually manage to kill a German, an act that he later admits to Clay as making him feel like the worst man in the world. After the war he manages to escape a number of circumstances that would lead him back to Clay and Rosa, because at first he simply doesn't know how to return to them. He lives a secret life, complete with disguises and fake names, in New York City, renting out an office in the Empire State Building, which becomes a central point of the novel (the building, not his living there.) His son, named Thomas for Kavalier's brother and known as Tommy, as in Tom Mayflower, discovers him by chance in the back of a magic shop and becomes sort of his apprentice, very much like the boy sidekick of a comic book hero.
This point is also very interesting because it is at this time that Sam and many other comic book writers and editors are being subpoenaed by the US Senate for degrading the moral character of America's youth through comics. As a suspected homosexual, Clay is accused of frequently giving superheroes boy sidekicks as a way of expressing his own pedophiliac urges. After public embarassment, Clay later goes into detail about the significance of the hero-sidekick relationship as that of the need for a father, a universal trait amongst boys who do most of their growing up while their fathers are at work. To prove the point, Clay mentions that circulation increases 22% once a sidekick is added and is a great way to increase the sales of a stagnating comic, which is practical information, but also, I think, is Chabon pointing out that he himself has added a sidekick as a plot twist at the end of the novel.
It is because of Tommy that Kavalier is found at all, which is interesting because of the liberation and deliverance themes of the book. Tommy writes a note to the newspaper that a man dressed as the Escapist will appear on top of the Empire State Building and jump the following day, and while he note begins as a fake, it becomes real (like so many other things in this book.) Joe really does appear in a stolen Escapist suit, prepared to fly from the building attached only by a home-made rubber band chord. The chord snaps, however, and the incident lands Joe in the hospital, and then to a really touching reunion with Rosa and Sam, the likes of which the reader has been waiting for like 200 pages.
With the return of Kavalier, Clay decides, it would seem, that now it is his turn to leave, and buys a ticket to LA, where he should have gone much earlier in life but backed out due to some horrific situations. At the end of the novel, Joe and Rosa wake to find Sam gone, and the deed of the house no longer reading Sam and Rosa Clay, but Kavalier and Clay, maybe because they were the only real thing to happen in the entire novel.

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