My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The original jacket copy compared The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to American Pastoral and Underworld, but that is very misleading. A crowd-pleasing saga to make us laugh and cry and to make us reflect on history just enough to leave us secure in our present attitudes, Michael Chabon’s third novel has no DeLilloesque paranoia or mysticism, no Rothian fury or nihilism, but only the satisfactions of the thoughtful blockbuster—albeit with a few more historical trappings and ten-dollar words—in the grand manner of John Irving or, perhaps closer to the mark, Pat Conroy. Think of it as Ragtime crossed with The Prince of Tides, eminently worthy of its Pulitzer.
The plot: in 1938, Brooklyn-born proto-nerd Sammy Klayman teams up with his cousin Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague, to create a new super-hero called The Escapist, inspired by Sammy’s love of Houdini and Joe’s training as magician and escape artist back in Europe under the tutelage of the legendary Kornblum. They become enormously successful in the burgeoning field of comic books, but complications ensue: Joe can’t get his beloved younger brother or the rest of his family to America; the publishers are stiffing the cousins on the profits since they signed away the copyright to their characters; Joe falls in love with a bohemian artist named Rosa Luxembourg Saks; Sammy falls in love with the handsome southerner who plays The Escapist on the radio and runs afoul of homophobic America; and more. Along the way, we meet, in obviously Doctorow-inspired asides, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, and Eleanor Roosevelt. These smoothly unfolding developments take us two-thirds of the way through the novel, after which it begins going awry even by its own internal standards as our heroes behave in extreme and insufficiently-motivated ways. We are forced to leave New York first for an ill-advised and perfunctory Antarctic adventure and then to a very long Levittown-lookalike epilogue in the 1950s, as the Golden Age comes to an end with the moral panic over comics’ corrupting influence. A magical realist subplot concerns the smuggling of the legendary golem—quite real in this novel—out of Prague; this motif positions the American super-hero as the inheritor of the golem’s mantle and the entire genre of super-hero comics as a branch of Jewish literature—more specifically, an offshoot of the Jewish fantastic, here understood as a means of escaping history’s abattoir.
For the first two hundred pages, I was duly ensorcelled; the long half-fantastical section set in Prague and the following pages on the wild origins of American comic books seem to set up the novel as a defense less of comics, super-heroes, or popular entertainment than of Jewish magic—Chabon seemed to be writing less against Fredric Wertham (mentioned over and over again in this book, though the novel’s garrulous narrator oddly never gets around to mentioning that the psychiatrist was himself Jewish) than against Cynthia Ozick. But the magic does not last, and neither does this fascinating idea. In the middle of the novel, Chabon begins laying on the historical context, the exciting coincidences, and the high romance as thick as frosting, and it becomes clear that this is a middlebrow revel, a high-end airport book, after all.
Chabon makes some half-hearted attempts to balance the novel’s moral accounts by alluding to the difficulty of opposing Nazism, an ideology of strength and conquest, with lurid and bloody fantasies that ultimately uphold the same values, but he is too committed to his poptimistic thesis about the necessity of escapism to confront the ethical and political problems this raises.
The shaping of a golem, to him, was a gesture of hope, offered against hope, in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something—one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties, and inevitable failures of the greater Creation. […] The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effects, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.
When, by the novel’s end, the cousins begin speaking of a new maturity on the horizon for the comics art form, I wondered where this left the defense of entertainment as criticism of life. Chabon cannily hedges his pop-loving bets, too, by assuring us that the comics genius Joe—a kind of super-Will-Eisner figure—was trained in fine arts in Prague, and by making the more respectable art of cinema, in the form of Citizen Kane, one of the main influences on the cousins’ comics ambitions—and not, say, a prior ambitious comic such as Krazy Kat.
The novel must defend escapism because it is itself a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if early comics were as liberatory and weighty, as clearly borne of modernism and of anti-fascism and of European Jewry, as they can seem if we squint at them in retrospect? Wouldn’t we have it all if Superman could be art and religion, if the mass-manufactured products that reared us (and reared our fathers and our grandfathers too) could truly compensate for or replace—via the novelist-magician’s ledgerdemain—the old high culture destroyed in different ways by both American commerce and European slaughter?
Chabon’s sleight of prose is not good enough to make the substitution convincing, however. Almost every review notes that the novel is studded at intervals with recondite words or even neologisms such as “omniveillant” and “aetataureate”; this is presumably to distract from the way the narrative voice, largely designed to mimic something like the enthusiastic but erudite register of a popular historian, is often no more than bestseller-serviceable and even sometimes sounds less like literature than like a voiceover scripted for Tom Brokaw—
Tommy Dorsey’s band was playing. Sammy sat and watched and listened, eyes half-closed, aware, as were all devotees of big-band swing in 1941, that it was his privilege to be alive at the very moment when the practitioners of his favorite music were at the absolute peak of their artistry and craft, a moment unsurpassed in this century for verve, romanticism, polish, and a droll, tidy, variety of soul.
—or a Nicholas Sparks movie—
He needed Rosa—her love, her body, but above all, her forgiveness—to complete the work that his pencils had begun.
Couple this prose with the novel’s preponderant sentimentality and its pop-pandering, and it is clear that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is nowhere near the level of American Pastoral or Underworld or the two novels by the aforementioned Cynthia Ozick of which it cannot help but remind me, The Puttermesser Papers (also about a golem) and Heir to the Glimmering World (also about Jewish refugees from Old Europe adrift in American modernity).
But Chabon has built an escape from my critique into his novel like a magician’s hidden trap-door: on the terms set by his winsome fiction, I am another Dr. Wertham, scolding the escapists when they are just trying to flee from the nightmare of history. Leaving aside the dubious equivalence implied by this thesis, according to which mass culture and persecuted minorities become one and the same (an offensive argument now all-too-common in some quarters), can it really be said that the purpose of art, any art, is to evade pain, death, and evil or to provide the recompense of forgetful pleasure in the face of them? Two of our three heroes are eating cake on the third to last page of the novel, and cake is what this novel is: impossibly delightful for about three forkfuls, then cloying, and finally, if you do not stop, sickening. Paradoxically, too much of such pleasure is no longer even pleasurable, and neither, by the end, is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
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