I don’t have too high a view of modern literature, mostly because I don’t have too high a view of the modern reader. When we’ve got fully-grown adults running around declaring that the Harry Potter series are the best books they’ve ever read, I think it’s only a matter of time before the premise of the movie Idiocracy actually happens.
But it’s authors like Michael Chabon that restore my hope in the future of literature. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is epic, and it left me reeling, in a good way.
The book is set in the 1930s and 40s, just before the U.S. involvement in World War II. We follow the stories of two cousins: Samuel Klayman, a young New York Jew, and his Czech cousin, Josef Kavalier. Chabon seamlessly works the nascent world of comic books into his tale, and the cousins’ rise and fall is mirrored in the success of their flagship character, The Escapist.
Chabon clearly researched the history of comics thoroughly, and his writing shows that it was a labor of love. Every step of The Escapist’s story, from his origin story to his eventually being sold out by the comic’s publisher, is fleshed out in minute detail. Only a true lover of comics could describe that process and make it interesting to a wider audience (in this case, readers of novels). And the origin story of the character, both the character’s conception and his motivation and origin as a superhero, is cleverly crafted by Chabon. I’d read The Escapist as a stand-alone story. It’s that compelling.
But The Escapist’s story is more than just a loving homage to comics by the author. It also reflects a lot of the character of its creators. Like Joe Kavalier, the character hates evil and oppression. Through The Escapist, Joe is able to land the right hook on Hitler’s jaw that he longs to throw, even as he waits in New York, virtually helpless to assist his own family.
And, like Sammy Clay, Tom Mayflower (The Escapist’s true identity) had a childhood history of physical weakness. But Sammy is able to give The Escapist a power and courage that he thinks he lacks.
The friendship and love between the cousins is just beautiful; one of the most moving friendships in literary history. Sammy doesn’t literally die to save Joe’s life, but he sacrifices his life for his friend all the same.
What makes The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay so amazing is not that their actual exploits are so incredible, although some of them do border on the fantastic. But it’s the fact that Chabon is able to weave the common threads of the human experience — life, love, loss — into his story that makes it truly remarkable.
And he does it all with a beautifully nuanced prose that puts hacks like Nicholas Sparks to shame. Michael Chabon is not just an author. He’s a writer.
I loved this book for all of its beauty and despair and ugliness and loneliness, but I have to warn my more conservative friends that it’s definitely rated R. There’s profanity and sex up in the hizzy. I didn’t find it to be crass or thrown in just for shock value, but it’s definitely there, so be forewarned.
This is a beautiful, beautiful book, and I absolutely loved it.