While Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the story of two comic book writers living in New York City in the early 1930s, it is, at the same time, an exploration of the universal condition of being human, of the unique condition of being Jewish during World War II, and of the incessant quest for self- discovery that traverses all and every plane of human existence.
At the beginning of the novel we meet Josef Kavalier, a young Jewish boy who has just escaped, rather epically, from Prague. With the help of a golem and at the expense of what small means his family could gather, Josef has made it out of Nazi-occupied Europe to New York to live with his cousin Sammy Klayman and his aunt Ethel. Sammy, a nineteen-year-old aspiring artist working as an illustrator for Empire Novelty, discovers within the first few hours of meeting Josef that his cousin is a superb artist far beyond Sammy’s own talents, and he immediately dreams up the possibility of starting a comic book series with Josef. The cousins pitch the idea to Sammy’s boss and in the Golden Age of comic books, the money-hungry mongrel Sheldon Anapol can do anything but turn the boys down.
Joe, having left behind his family in Prague, feels a looming sense of guilt in the wake of his freedom and seemingly unmerited job. In order to offset this agony, Joe centers all of his art on anti-Nazi themes and supplements his war efforts by fighting, or attempting to fight, any German he can find in New York City – and he happens to find quite a few. A reticent and stubbornly introverted young man, Joe cannot seem to express his own self-torment, his love or any part of his emotional self.
While Joe is fighting the internal battles of guilt and shame over his external situation, Sammy is fighting a battle with similar sentiments but in terms of his art, and most especially his sexuality. He is lonely, fatherless, and oddly uninterested in forming romantic relationships with any woman he meets. Constantly questioning his own feelings towards others, in particular his jealousy toward Josef’s girlfriend (but not Josef himself), Sammy is at odds with his sexual orientation in a time and place when such thoughts were so taboo, Sammy can’t even identify that this is his struggle.
The young men negotiate the difficulties that accompany success, love, failure and loss; they confront the harsh realities of imperfection, of ageing and of the restrictions and expanse of their own morality as they grow in their artistry, their familial ties and their humanity.
The novel holds the space between literary, historical and surrealistic fiction at times spotlighting on Joe and Sammy’s comic book characters and at other times featuring historical figures such as Salvador Dali. Chabon’s artistry with words (just sample this: “The cold jerked his chest like a wire snare. It fell on him like a safe. It lapped eagerly at his unprotected feet and licked at his kneecaps.” ) is equally matched by the novel’s moral direction and inherently philosophical bend. Themes emerge throughout the novel, are picked up, threaded through other themes and woven together in a seamless tale that never quite goes where you are expecting it to. Themes of self-expression, self-discovery, escapism (in all positive and negative senses of the word) and most thoroughly self-liberation, are only a few of the threads Chabon draws upon.
If you’re in any way shy or reserved, don’t read this book in a café or any other public place: expect multiple jaw dropping moments, laugh-out-loud scenes and characters you will fall so in love with that you will forget you are reading anything but the story of your own life in the guise of previously unfamiliar names, places and expressions you’ll soon forget you didn’t know before.
Though, as with any great novel (and this is sure to join the ranks of the American classics), the first 130 or so pages aren’t as fast paced as the rest, the benefit of patience (if you happen to be impatient) is well worth the wait: once you hit page 145 the book will haunt you every moment it’s not in your hands with its covers spread.
Published by Random House in 2012, you can find Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay at your local bookstore.