The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay
In the spectacular opening chapters of Michael Chabon's audacious third novel, The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay, a young Czech Houdini-in-training is given sage advice by his mentor: "Never worry about what you're escaping from. Reserve your anxieties for what you are escaping to." Goaded by Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley, who complained that his otherwise excellent novels (The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys) were too narrow in scope, Chabon himself must have felt no small amount of anxiety leaping into a sprawling fiction about the intersection of comics and American history. Fitting for a book that celebrates the thrill of creation, his prose bursts with exuberance and imagination, greeting the daunting new challenge with an assured, remarkably dexterous touch. Shrewdly fusing the gee-whiz enthusiasm of early comic books with the sobering tone introduced by WWII, Kavalier & Clay opens in Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939, just as the borders are being sealed off for Jewish émigrés. Denied passage after his family invests its fortune in his flight, 19-year-old Joe Kavalier, a preternaturally gifted artist of escape and graphic design, assists in a perilous mission to smuggle a precious golem sculpture (and himself) to Lithuania. After a long trip across Asia and the Pacific, he finally arrives at a relative's house in Brooklyn, where he meets cousin Sammy Klayman, a stock-room clerk at Empire Novelty, a company that sells shoddy products (midget radios, X-ray specs, joy buzzers) to adolescent boys. Inspired by Kavalier's drawings and Klayman's enthusiasm for the burgeoning art form of comics, the two devise The Escapist, a groundbreaking serial featuring a Houdini-like superhero who "vows to free all who toil in chains." In this violent new dreamscape, the cousins fight their own war against the Nazisthe dynamic first cover shows Hitler taking a roundhouse to the jawbut, nervous about America's lack of involvement, corporate forces work to compromise their art. Chabon's multi-layered story piles on subplots and asides, but he's ultimately interested in looking at how the developing medium, cast aside as unsophisticated kids' stuff, actually captured the tenor of the times. True to comics' hyper-real flights of fancy, Kavalier & Clay playfully mingles the cousins' lives with history, including absurd meetings with Salvador Dali and Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane figures into a major artistic epiphany. In Chabon's hands, their adventures are outsized and immensely entertaining, but he also slips in darker themes about American anti-Semitism, the impotence of money, and the contradictions that can arise from creating popular art. As Kavalier inks 200 pages a month of "wholesale imaginary slaughter," he's faced with the reality that his fortunes can't liberate his familyand that the vengeful brutality he serves up to the public, while righteous in intent, carries an undeniable fascist element. A rousing labor of love by a major contemporary author, Kavalier & Clay reveals that sometimes the horrors generated by popular artists can both reflect and ricochet.