J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: A book review.

When I was in college, toiling in literature classes, one of my English professors had an interesting thing to say in regards to when my classmates would complain about how boring or ponderous the selected reading was. Whether it was MiddleMarch or Bartleby the Scrivener, students would complain about how awful it was to read. And the professor would have to explain why they chose it. Oftentimes I’ve been of the thought that those who teach “classic” literature are charged with defending it as much as they actually teach it.

That day, my professor, looking every bit the part with a blazer with elbow patches, and thick glasses, looked at us while leaning back on his desk, and said “Sometimes, good literature is painful.”

I railed and ranted against this for some time in my life. If it’s written well, I would argue, then it should be easy to digest! I’ve often been a critic of what classic literature is classic because it’s good, or simply because it’s old and lauded by a long lost generation that had nothing better to do with their time, since they had no smartphones or internet to play with.

But I just read a book that really is a strong piece of evidence for my professor’s argument. That book? The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

The cover is what caught my eye in the beginning. It’s gorgeous.

The blurb reads like this:

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 otherworldy 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, writing “like a magical spider, effortlessly spinning out elaborate webs of words that ensnare the reader” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times), has created a hero for the century.

Make no bones about it. This is a brilliant book. But I found it painful to read, in some ways.

What do I mean? It’s a Pulitzer Prize winning book, for god’s sake! How can it be painful? Well, if you’ve got another few minutes, I’ll explain.

What I liked:

The subject matter. I knew this book was about comic books. I love comic books. I almost expected sort of an adventure in the comic book/pulp mold. Instead, what I got was much better. The book is a fictional account of two precocious Jewish boys that live through a very difficult era to be a Semite – World War 2. They break free of their problems by getting into a medium that was ready to explode with popularity – the comic business. The author definitely knows his comic history, and makes this story a great faux-account of the comic business back then. And he makes it sound incredibly literary the whole way through, which is impressive.

The story that our heroes go through aren’t much different from what some of the legends of the comic book business back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s did. Jack Kirby, for example, had a life not too different from what you read in this book.

And I see that the comic made up in the novel is now literally a real comic. How very meta.

The characters. It’s not a stretch to say that the characters (especially Joe and Sam) are so freaking well developed that by the time the book is over, you’ll sort of feel like you just read a biography about them. You know that Joe lived a hard life in Prague, wanting to be a magician before escaping to America, and then striving to help his family escape too. You’ll see how Sam is a bit of a misfit, and though he finds great success in all the ways that a person looking on the outside might strive to be successful (a wife, a kid, a house, a successful career in publishing), he lives with a sense that every day of his life is a lie. Both characters are brilliantly executed, and you’ll find yourself rooting for both of them when they succeed, and bearing enmity for them when they screw up.

That’s my favorite part, I think. Both Kavalier and Clay find great success, but they both also deal with great adversity, whether it’s the fear of their family being killed by Nazis, or being “a fairy” in a world where that meant possibly going to jail for it, or just the simple fact that they are Jewish.

The language. This book is bursting with amazing description, and language that makes me glad to know English as well as I do. It’s a disservice to just choose one phrase from this book that demonstrates what I’m talking about, but for the sake of word limits (with these book reviews I try to keep them between 1000-1500 words), I’ll choose one of my favorites, which is how Bernard Kornblum, Joe’s magic teacher, is described when we first meet him.

Kornblum was an “eastern” Jew, bone-thin, with a bushy red beard he tied up in a black silk net before every performance. “It distracts them,” he said, meaning his audiences, whom he viewed with the veteran performer’s admixture of wonder and disdain. Since he worked with the minimum of patter, finding other means of distracting spectators was always an important consideration. “If I could work without pants on,” he said, “I would go naked.” His forehead was immense, his fingers long and dextrous but inelegant with knobby joints; his cheeks, even on May mornings, looked rubbed and peeling, as though chafed by polar winds…He wore suits of an outdated, pigeon breasted, Valentino cut. Because his diet consisted in large part of tinned fish – anchovies, smelts, sardines, tunny- his breath often carried a rank marine tang. Although a staunch atheist, he nonetheless kept kosher, avoided work on Saturday, and kept a steel engraving of the Temple Mount on the east wall of his room.

Just stop and think of all the imagery that passage gives, along with all the vital little character details thrown in. And this is for a character that gets a relatively small amount of time in the novel! Chabon is a great writer. No doubt about that.

What I didn’t like:

It’s soooo literary. This is debatable, of course, but the same thing that makes this book great is what made it so difficult for me at times. I’m typically more of a fan of books that are light on description, because whether it’s from reading in college or just personal preference, my brain tends to try and filter out excessive description as “filler”.

When I read a book and see a block paragraph of description, I get the urge to simply skip it and look for the next sentence where something happens. I had to constantly make myself stop that with this book, as it stops, looks around, and revels at the world it has created constantly. So it’s not really a negative, except for me personally. No shame on the author whatsoever. I wrote this story, I’d do the same thing. It just ended up making me take a REALLY long time to read it, as opposed to how I usually blaze through books.


The verdict:

This book rocks. It’s not an easy read, but it rocks. Anyone who enjoys not only comic books, but the history behind them should definitely read it. Everyone else should too, just because it’s an excellent book.

***** all the way.


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