Settle in for a long one, my friends. I have a lot to say about this book. There’s no holding back for a work like this. I have a lot to say about how I found this book in the first place, about what it means to me and my world, and how it all comes together after the fact. If you’re one of those TL;DR people… why do you even look at my posts? I mean, seriously? You know who you are, and you know what to expect from me by now. For those who actually care about what I have to say (thank you!), I’m going to attempt to rein this in, but I’m not entirely sure I’ll be successful about it. Conceivably, I could write an entire book about all of the different levels of this book. I won’t, but I could. I hope that by the end of this, you’ll understand why this came together as it has.
Let’s get a couple of points out of the way up front. First, there will be spoilers. Second, life doesn’t come with trigger warnings, and neither should the arts. When done correctly, literature has something to say, and it needs to say it on its own terms. In fact, were it up to me, you wouldn’t be allowed to read this review until you read the book itself. But that’s on you. These points are related, and while I won’t discuss how things play out, I have to touch on certain points in order to leverage my thoughts.
I probably should have done this from the beginning or adopted the idea years ago at the very least, but I’m going offer the official synopsis from the publisher going forward. It just makes things a little easier. (Not that this will stop me from blogging a bluestreak about a book like this.) Let’s jump in.
Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2001
It’s 1939, in New York City. Joe Kavalier, a young artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdiniesque escape, has just pulled off his greatest feat: smuggling himself out of Hitler’s Prague. He’s looking to make big money, fast, so that he can bring his family to freedom. His cousin, Brooklyn’s own Sammy Clay, is looking for a partner in creating the heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit the American dreamscape: the comic book.
Inspired by their own fantasies, fears, and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor, and the otherworldly Mistress of the Night, Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. The golden age of comic books has begun, even as the shadow of Hitler falls across Europe.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is a stunning novel of endless comic invention and unforgettable characters, written in the exhilarating prose that has led critics to compare Michael Chabon to Cheever and Nabokov. In Joe Kavalier, Chabon has created a hero for the century.
This book and I have a shared history. We’ve crossed paths before, you see. It was late September 2000. I had finished college. I was working full time at a fast food restaurant, applying for jobs on six continents in a desperate bid to get my foot in the door in my chosen profession (spoiler alert: it didn’t happen, and I had another year before I’d land a “real job”). Between the lack of funding and the remarkably lackluster downturn comic books had taken in recent months after what I considered to be a rather brave decade of storytelling, my $100+ a week comic habit (back when the average monthly title was $1.99) was more or less dropped, almost cold turkey. I dabbled off and on for a few years longer before pulling the plug. I was in the grips of depression, I was bitter, and I had no idea that the worst was still in front of me. I saw this book on the shelf at my local bookstore. Keeping in mind that I was, at that time, at the very top of my game when it came to superheroes, origin stories, and the history of the Golden Age, my first reaction to this was one of confusion. I’d never heard of Kavalier & Clay. Was this some long-buried duo that got pushed into obscurity? Once I realized it was a novel (the cover told me so), I flipped through the book, read the synopsis, and discovered that Kavalier & Clay weren’t superheroes, but rather the creators of superheroes. But they, too, were not anyone I should have known about. They were fictional analogs, which told me that maybe the author was too lazy to do the research on the real people who created the world’s greatest heroes. I decided that this book was the product of some jackass looking to make a predatory buck on my already wounded nostalgia. The verdict I passed down that day was this was a fake. A phony. A cheap knock-off. I didn’t need this. I had Siegel and Shuster. I had Finger and Kane. I had Marston and Peter. What the fuck was this nonsense? I put the book back on the shelf in disgust, and didn’t give it a second thought. In those years since, my beloved superheroes — Superman, Batman, and especially Wonder Woman — have had their universes and their personalities rebooted at least twice and have made the jump to the big screen in a shared universe that I was preaching would work decades ago. Except that I don’t recognize my heroes in any of that, and the loyal opposition over at Marvel is ironically making their cinematic universe work exactly the way I’ve always said DC should operate. I’ve long since given up on them because they gave up on me when they surrendered the very essences of who they are. Their Identity Crisis (ironically, also the name of the book where I feel everything started to fall apart for DC) fed into my own identity issues, unfolding over the course of years.
Fast forward to recent weeks. Star Trek announces it will launch four Short Treks, one each month, leading up to the season two premiere of Star Trek: Discovery. The second of these will be written by Michael Chabon. The internet goes nuts, and I’m only vaguely aware of that name. I don’t look him up, however. If I were to be excited, they’ll have to give me better than this. And they did. Chabon, it’s announced, will be on the writing team for the new series featuring Patrick Stewart’s return to the role of Jean-Luc Picard. Again, the internet goes nuts, and I’m feeling remarkably left out. I’m missing a key bit of information here somewhere. So I look him up. For starters, he’s the man that wrote the screenplay for Disney’s John Carter, a film that deserved far more than the craptastic marketing campaign that torpedoed it. With that movie, he’d done the impossible, bringing that story forward in a way that I never believed could happen while remaining true to its spirit and source material. Then I discover he’d done the impossible before that. He wrote the screenplay for Spider-Man 2. It was he who turned Doc Ock into a villain I could respect for the first time ever and played on every single trope in the Spidey lexicon that I despise — including the ubiquitous costume in the trash can scene — and pulled it all together in a way I could appreciate. And then I see he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner… for this book, and it sounds familiar for some odd reason. Kavalier & Clay? Why do I know this? I find the cover art, and a thousand memories flood in at once. This book I so blatantly dismissed all those years ago had long since made its mark on the world and proved to be something worthy of my attention… if only I known that. I smiled as I considered how smug I’d been. This was the opportunity for redemption, a chance to open my heart to it, to make amends, to give the story the proper due and respect that it seems to have earned everywhere else. And so, I dipped into my trusty Audible account, dropped my credit, and…
… and then the book sat in my queue for a few more weeks. Two things happened there.
First, I started making some serious breakthroughs on my personal life. Between therapy, meditation, and a renewed interest in a great many things that used to bring me joy and balance, life was finally starting to look up. Things were coming together. I needed to ride that wave. And I really felt like I needed to clear my plate of some other things too. This book would demand my attention. I just knew it. I wanted to dedicate to it when the time came.
Second… how do I even describe this…? Have you ever encountered a book that you knew in advance would be so good that it intimidated you? Sounds silly, doesn’t it? That’s what happened here. In quite the reverse of our first encounter, I now felt like I wasn’t worthy of this book. It felt like it had become the manifested answer to some long distant prayer I’d never thought would come true, and now that it was here, I felt like I was unfit to receive it. People… that is a new experience for me, a new wall I had to hit face first before I could bust through it or climb over it.
When I finally got to a place where I could dedicate the time and attention, I made another conscious decision: I wanted to savor this experience. No rushing, no plowing through. Consciously enjoy it. Pick up on the nuance. Savor it. Pause it when need be so as to let it breathe. This book won the Pulitzer for a reason, but I suspected there was something far deeper here that I specifically needed, and this book would offer it to me. Don’t ask me how I knew. I just did. I felt it.
That’s a lot of preamble, I know, but some books are worth it. I’m pleased to say that after all that back there, this book is most definitely worth it.
The story of Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay is the story of the American Dream, shaped by — and in spite of — the nightmare of the world around us all.
Joe’s story is tied up in the persecution of the Jews in the years before and during the second world war. His is the experience of the immigrant, scouting ahead for a path of security for his family to follow. He is looking for both the means to bring his plan to fruition and for the means to somehow strike back against his oppressors… not the easiest thing to do in pre-war America. People don’t like Hitler, but we’re not at war either. Not yet. The prejudices of the time are in place, in focus, and spotlighted in a way that a history book really can’t do.
Joe’s cousin, Sammy, has his finger on the pulse of popular entertainment. He’s a storyteller at heart, but he’s a streetwise kid looking for the in-road to something more. Joe’s artistic talents and colorful background provide the springboard that Sammy can use to bring them both into a world that can serve both their needs. But success has a price. For Sammy, it puts him on a collision course with his own identity and a world that will persecute him if his secret becomes known.
Add in Rosa Saks, the woman who will redefine both their lives, and this book becomes a tale that becomes so much more than the sum of its parts, breathing life into aspects of the world that most people don’t even think about. As with Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman (and as with all of the successful creators of that era), we see in Kavalier and Clay the backstories that make their creations mean something. It’s the interplay between “reality” and “fantasy” that elevates their tales — and our own — to the next level where it will flirt with immortality.
This tale unfolds in the course of eras. We begin in 1939, in the buildup to World War II and the birth of the Golden Age of superheroes and comics books. Kavalier and Clay exist in the same world with Siegel and Shuster, with Stan Lee, with the likes of Walter B. Gibson, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali. Their headline character, The Escapist, is one of the many knock-off competition characters that went head-to-head with Superman. One of Chabon’s truly remarkable feats in this is to give this story a course that is parallel to that of Superman, with some of the same evolutionary developments such as radio and film. The same understanding that goes into the lives of Kavalier and Clay elevates their creations in the minds of the public who are unaware of the stories behind the stories. It allows a reader to experience everything in this story as a unified whole. Alongside these two protagonists, we fight the Nazis and the scare of fascism back home, but we also face extremism within ourselves. We fight the prejudice of racial tensions and unaccepted sexual orientations, and we come to understand what love means and what sacrifices that demands of us. And as the story continues to unfold, we face with them the downfall of the superhero in the popular consciousness in the postwar years and the congressional hearings in the wake of Dr. Frederic Wertham’s notorious book Seduction of the Innocent, wherein the superhero was blamed for everything unpatriotic, immoral, and otherwise wrong in postwar America. You can’t learn about the history of comics without hearing about that book. It was part of McCarthy’s little witch hunt that had everyone seeing the subversive and the dangerous around every corner. I’ve got a copy of that book. I’ve read it for myself. Knowing what’s in it, knowing how the congressional hearings unfolded, and knowing what that would mean for Kavalier and Clay as their own stories were told… I can’t begin to describe the effect it had on me to see the headlamp of the train of inevitability coming right at these guys.
My formative years were spent growing up in the world before the internet. My experience of collecting comics and tracking down related merchandise (action figures, posters, etc.), before I had access to dedicated comics shops, wasn’t so different to my 1930s and 40s counterparts. I had access to radio dramas and film serials, and I could readily draw the lines of evolution from the years of Depression and War to my own youth, learning how history unfolded with the superhero as part of the engine of propaganda. There is a parallel in the experience of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and that of the events of 9/11 that redefine life itself and the superhero subgenre that feels very real to me. I have a deep-seated historical appreciation for four-color legends of yesteryear and the pulps that inspired them, as well as a fanatical devotion the intertwined relationship between history and fantasy that these characters and stories evoke. Combine that with a secret identity of my own that made me feel a kindred spirit to this world where right and wrong was not that difficult a choice to make, and it’s perhaps easy to understand why a book like this really should have had me at hello. It tried at the time. I just wouldn’t listen. Had I been more open to understanding what it was I was seeing back then, it would have. But I think the intervening years only served to make me truly ready for this in a way that maybe I couldn’t have appreciated so fully back when this was first published. It waited patiently for me to find myself so that it could have a proper conversation. I’ve done a lot of growing up. I’ve experienced the heartache, the setbacks, the frustration. I’ve come to a place where I finally stopped running and hiding, to a point where I could finally allow myself to take off the mask and let people in. Like Joe Kavalier, I see the world is a mess, and I want to fix it. Like Sammy Clay, I’ve come to acknowledge who I am in a world that will not accept me. And like Rosa Saks, I’ve been more subject to the whims of the world and the people in my life than the other way around. But in the midst of it all, I’ve come to know what drives me and why. When this book speaks, I not only know what it’s saying, but now I feel like it was written specifically with me in mind. I know that’s not the case at all, but that’s how personal this felt. I often feel like I can’t relate to the world around me, and this book tied it together and became a kind of mediator for the life I’ve never lived. What this book does so very well is present everyday people into everyday situations that were quite normal for their times and places. And yet, there is an element of magic, both in the Houdini styled sensibility that sets the stage for The Escapist, but also in the story of the Golem, which features prominently in the background of Joe’s story. A dash of the impossible, a backdrop of the epic, and ultimately it’s about the human heart.
Reading this book helped me to reconcile my own unprocessed anger and grief as the worlds of my favorite superheroes passed me by. Rather than continue to rail at the writers and artists who fail today to understand what makes these characters tick, I’m able to once more embrace these characters and their stories for what they are, for what they meant to me at various points in my life when I needed them most. I was able to come to terms with all of this over the course of the novel, and when the story was over, I laid back on my bed in the darkness, enveloped in a sense of awe and gratitude. For the first time in years, I feel like so many of these disjointed ideas in my life make sense in conjunction with one another. I recognize that I’ve been a part of something special, that my own experiences within all of that are part of the collective whole that makes it all worth it. Likewise, I recognize that the world of superheroes is part of the collective whole that makes my own life unique, helping to define my identity in a world that ultimately couldn’t care care less. There’s a symbiosis here that I truly wish I could describe better. The best I can say is that Michael Chabon gets it at every possible level. There’s nothing about this book that exploits any of the themes in play. He’s respectful at all turns and treats everything as though it personally affects him. And maybe it does. The best writers write what they know. He clearly has his fingers on the pulse of pulp entertainment. He’s at home in the worlds of The Shadow and Superman. His Jewish background informs much the milieu. The rest… it’s truly difficult to know where reality ends and imagination begins. This book is a fantastic read. It has a lot to say, and it says it so very well. There were several moments when I was moved to tears. I’ll decline to say when and how simply because I don’t want to ruin the experience for those who choose to read it. It is magnificent. That Pulitzer is well-earned.
It was less than a month ago that I posted a blog about my 50 favorite books. I purchased this book less than a week later and sat on it a while longer before I began the story. Now that I’ve experienced it… one of those 50 books is going to have to make way for this one; Kavalier & Clay effortlessly moved into that list. I don’t know how to make that choice right at this moment. Perhaps the only thing that needs to change is the arbitrary number.