Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I recently read my favourite book for the first time.

When I finished it, I was in the middle of a blood donation. I closed the book and set it my lap, and calmly thought, "I can't remember reading a book I enjoyed more than this one."

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon was highly recommended to me years ago, and because of that recommendation, I began hunting for it used. It took me years to find it, and now I know why. No one would ever want to part with their copy, save lending it out to a good and trusted friend.

"Adventures" follows the lives of two cousins for about fifteen years, starting in 1939. Joe is an immigrant from Prague. His family worked especially hard to get him, the eldest son, out of the increasingly Nazi-occupied city. Just as the day for him to travel to New York City arrives, the regulations on travelling Jews were tightened once again, making his hard-earned papers obsolete. He seeks help from an old man who was once his escapistry teacher. Joe was a big fan of Houdini and sleight-of-hand artists, and once studied with Mr. Kornblum, who taught him how to pick locks, hide keys, and hold his breath for long periods of time. Mr. Kornblum arranges to smuggle him east in a casket carrying a golem.

After travelling east, Joe finally arrives in New York, where he meets his cousin Sam for the first time. Sam is a devotee of the earliest comic books, and works as a mediocre illustrator at a novelty catalogue company. He dreams of creating his own comic books. It turns out that theirs is a match made in heaven, as Joe is a trained illustrator and Sam is a natural story-teller.

They create the wildly popular Escapist, a superhero who pursues justice and, best of all, graphically trounces Nazis. This allows Joe to take out some of his frustration while his family suffers in a ghetto in Prague.

The history of comic books informs the title and the cover designs. Here's the first edition's cover:

I won't detail any more of the plot, since this is an epic work - babies are born, wars are fought, and there are tragic losses. This is clearly a masterpiece, a magnum opus. I pity Chabon sometimes, wondering if every time he sets pen to paper, he tries to live up to the greatness of this book, and lets the air out of his lungs and allows his shoulders to slump.

One thing I regret is that I didn't keep a pencil close at hand while I was reading "Adventures." When I was a student, I would keep a list of words I didn't know in the back cover of the book and make a tiny dog ear on bottom of the offending page.

Being a word geek, this book was a thrill. I wager on every page there was a word I didn't know. Don't let this intimidate you: we know to not get hung up on words we don't know, but to glean their meaning from the context and move on. Still, I wish I'd made the effort to look them all up, just to get them under my belt. Chabon has such a raw, but also subtle way of using the English language. Violence is graphic, but hardly described. Sex scenes are complete and satisfying in two sentences. Grief and shame are illustrated in a simple nod.

There was an incredible amount of research that would have had to have been done to make this novel click. In the back of the "Adventures," Chabon lists dozens of books he read about the advent of comic books, New York in the 1940s, World War II, Jewish folklore and Jews in Europe before and during the war, among many other topics. He interweaves historical events into "Adventures," which makes it read more like a duel-biography than a work of fiction. It's funny, but true: you take away a feeling of wanting to shake Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier's hands for their contributions to American culture.

I can't implore you enough to find this book and read it. I am going to try to read Chabon's other books to see how they compare. I've since read his first novel, "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and it was good. Again, it had that rawness but also a cool disconnect with the characters. I could hear his voice in it, but still, it didn't have the intrigue of "Adventures." "Adventures" did, after all, win a Pulitzer Prize and was on many of the "best of the decade" lists that came out in December. I'm going to try to find a copy of "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" next. I think I'll enjoy that one, too.

I am nervous about an impending film adaptation, however. It's too big a book for a movie, and I don't mean length-wise (although it is a good-sized tome at c.600 pages). If it has to be filmed, and I wish it didn't have to be, it might be better suited for a miniseries or a trilogy of films.


H. said...

K, I am totally sold on it. If I can find it, I think I know what I shall read when this damn dissertation is in the bag. I've got years' worth of reading to catch up on.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you finally read this book. I'm never parting with mine, either.