The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
BY MICHAEL CHABON
Random House; 636 pages; $26.95
I'm not sure what the exact definition of a "great American novel" is, but I'm pretty sure that Michael Chabon's sprawling, idiosyncratic, and wrenching new book is one. Despite the flippant Marvel Comics title (this is, after all, a novel about comic books and their makers), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is preoccupied with vast and sober American themes: the meaning and mechanics of cultural assimilation, the search for moral and emotional identity in an indifferent world, the transformative role of popular entertainment in the lives of individuals and the nation itself. Oh, and did I mention love, death, guilt, and redemption? Yep -- those too.
If that sounds a bit ponderous, the novel's not. In the best fiction, great themes evolve organically from great stories rather than the other way around. (When you start with the themes and look for a story to dress them up in, the result has all of the naturalness and charm of a Social Realist mural.) The story Chabon tells is a quirky and yet quintessentially American rags-to-riches-and-beyond tale that manages to include a boat full of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler, an attempt to spirit the Golem out of Prague, the history of comic books, a visit to Houdini's grave, a screening of Citizen Kane, a party for Salvador Dalí, bar mitzvahs at the Pierre, a lower-middle-class Brooklyn apartment and an "arty" Greenwich Village townhouse, a straight love affair, a gay love affair, Governor Al Smith, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The 600-plus pages had me hooked from the first, wistful, epic-tinged sentence ("In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans . . .") to the final poignant line. Their dense interweaving of big ideas and small details, of the personal and the historical, of the grandly symbolic and the minutely everyday, constitutes a major literary achievement along the lines of, say, Ragtime (with which this novel shares many concerns and themes) and ought to elevate its author to the rank of an important, as opposed to a merely good, American writer.
As befits its big ambitions, the novel has not one but two heroes -- Sammy Clay (né Klayman), of Brooklyn, and his cousin, Josef Kavalier, a onetime apprentice magician recently arrived from Nazi-occupied Prague -- who briefly realize the American Dream. Sammy has a talent for storytelling and Joe a gift for drawing; in 1939, the two teenagers dream up a superhero, who becomes a huge hit, spawning millions of magazine sales, a radio show, and eventually some movie serials. But Chabon's novel is really about the conflicts that lie beneath the shiny dream. Joe's story, which takes him from Czechoslovakia to New York and makes pit stops in Russia, Japan, and Antarctica, is about exile and historical redemption. As his efforts to help his distant family prove increasingly fruitless, he spends more and more time wandering around New York looking for Germans to beat up; one of this book's finest and most morally astute ironies is that when the war finally presents him with an opportunity to kill one, it's in a frozen wilderness, whose obliterating barrenness and distance from the theater of war render the act meaningless, if not absurd. And Joe's literal wanderings parallel the figurative but no less compelling roamings of Sammy, who's barely ever left Brooklyn. When Sammy realizes he's gay, the problem for him isn't fitting in but coming out.
The superhero these two characters dream up is called the Escapist. This is deeply appropriate: The "amazing adventures" to which the title refers all involve breaking out, flight, and disappearance. From the opening description of the frustrated Sammy as "sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York" through the poignant glimpses of Joe's "entrapment in the toils of bureaucracy" as he tried to save his family from the Nazis, escape itself becomes a powerful metaphor for the ultimate American aspiration. Ultimate, because only here does the Utopian promise of total freedom make any identifying element -- religion, race, sexuality, gender -- a potential prison.
With wrenching but never obvious irony, Chabon uses these two stories to investigate the problematic nature of the American dream of escape -- or, in its guise as popular entertainment, escapism. Sammy, for instance, enjoys a brief moment of romantic happiness with Tracy Bacon, the boyish star of the Escapist radio show, in an abandoned 1939 World's Fair model of a futuristic Utopia. A few hundred pages later, after the war is over, he's married to a woman he doesn't desire and raising a son who isn't his own -- living, ironically, in one of those Long Island suburbs where "a patch of green grass and a rational floor plan" once held out a shimmer of promise as insubstantial as that of the Perisphere and Trylon, which turn out to be made of plaster. In this paradise, Sammy toils doggedly on a novel called American Disillusionment. The stark contrast between the comics he effortlessly writes, with their wild energies and dizzy plotting, and the earnest, unfinishable novel reminds you that pop culture teases us with dreams that real life is rarely able to equal.
Anyone familiar with Chabon's superb first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and his subsequent novel and story collection, won't be surprised that there's a lot of beautiful writing here. But its deft deployment of big American themes and symbols elevates his idiosyncratic story to the level of national fable. Not for nothing does Sammy achieve his first taste of erotic bliss, and Joe languish in moral despair, in the Empire State Building, that monument to aspiration constructed at the nadir of a Depression. Nor, indeed, is it accidental that the two greatest crises in the novel -- news of the sinking of the boat filled with Jewish refugee children, some of whom Joe is sponsoring, and the police raid on a gay house party at which Sammy is a nervous guest -- take place on the same night: December 6, 1941.
A writer who can interweave his fictions and our history with such confidence is a major writer. As, indeed, is one who can take the banal and "low" elements of our culture (like comic books) and make them so grandly and effectively symbolic, as Chabon does here, of the most important things: art, life, the essence of what it is to be a person -- Clay, not mere clay. Toward the end of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Joe speculates about the human impulse to create Golems and other species of superheroes, about the "yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something . . . exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation." That's as good a description of art -- and this book -- as I can think of.