My copy: trade paperback
Purchased September 22, 2009
from The Bookstore,
University of the Philippines campus
Read: March 3, 2010
If it were not for the recommendations of my book club friends, I would probably not have heard of Michael Chabon and consequently would not have picked up this book from the used bookstore shelf. If it were not for this rather silly A to Z challenge, I probably would not have picked this up from my own shelf to actually read it. The heft intimidated me; a 1 1/4" thick trade paperback with 639 pages, this is the kind of book that would set me back in my 70-book goal for 2010. But I needed a C author, and this was the most attractive choice, so I took a deep breath and made the commitment to start the adventure.
Above is the reason I started reading TAAOKC. But why I continued reading it is all Michael Chabon's fault. That guy can write.
According to Wikipedia, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the author's magnum opus. It won for him a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. Okay, I don't really care about those things. What matters is that this guy can write.
He writes so well that reading 600++ pages was a breeze. He writes so convincingly that I felt I was reading about something that really happened. Like there really were these 2 Jewish cousins who lived in New York City and they collaborated on a comic book series about a Harry Houdini inspired superhero called The Escapist and they didn't make as much money as they should have.... oh, I'll shut up now and let you read the book yourself.
So as I was saying, Chabon can write. Several times I had to tell myself to stop crying/laughing/moaning because it was just fiction. It didn't really happen.
Well, some parts of it did. Chabon brings you back to a real time in the 40s, just before the United States plunged into World War 2, when the comic book has just been born and the industry was beginning to flourish. It was the golden age of comic books, and Jewish artists, denied work in other fields, found themselves dominating the industry. Chabon works in historical characters (like Hitler, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles) and historical events (WW2, the Congressional hearings against comic books) and weaves them into the fictional lives of Josef "Jo" Kavalier and Sam Clayman.
Joe Kavalier is one of the most likable characters I have had the pleasure of reading. I immediately fell in love with him. It was more like a crush, really. He got me when as a child he attempted his first performance -- what his flyer advertised as "an astounding feat of autoliberation by that prodigy of escapistry CAVALIERI" - and almost killed himself trapped in a sack thrown into an icy river in Prague. He lives through it. He lives through a hellish trip to New York, a leg of which he spent in a coffin. He lives through the tragedy of losing loved ones. He lives through a war assignment in the polar regions. He lives an extraordinary life marked by passion for the interests he pursues, marred by tragedy, enriched by romance, and of course, there is all that comic book magic. His character is gawky, geeky but also adorable and heroic.
His cousin Sam has his share of tragedy and adventure too. His deepest pains include insecurity about his physical imperfections, the absence of a father, his struggles with gender issues, and the agony of being duped and exploited by the owners of The Escapist enterprise. Your heart just goes out to him.
There is a host of other fascinating characters, but I don't want to talk about the characters and the plot any more as they're better enjoyed as you read the book. I want to talk more about Chabon's writing -- when he writes Sam's cliche-ridden comic book scripts, he writes in a cheesy, melodramatic manner that lends itself well to the theme. When he writes as the unnamed narrator of the the adventures, he is terrific - altenatively funny, wry, poignant, furious whenever necessary. You know how it is when you're in New York, and there's this buzz that rings in your ears? Chabon was able to communicate that frenetic, intense energy that draws from the big city commotion, a bustling social and art scene, the cacophony of nascent and burgeoning industries, and the controversy of an upcoming war. What Chabon really does well is to face the challenge of narrating through text alone a story, a theme that should convey itself better graphically - through a movie or even a graphic novel. How difficult it must have been to write about Joe's art -- the slugfests, the caricatured characters, the battle against evil fascists -- and enable the readers to see them all in their minds' eyes. And he does so successfully.
Wikipedia says that this novel received "nearly unanimous praise." Huh, just nearly?