The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon) 5*

I was a skeptic at first.  The writing is more baroque than I favor and liberal with words like “selvage,” “faience,” and “flense,” as if Chabon is hellbent on driving the reader to the dictionary.  Still, I can’t dispute this Pulitzer.

It’s magnificent.  *kisses fingers*

If Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes magic realism, I’d say Chabon writes magic history. Most of the story could be real — Houdini did deeply impress the consciousness of the 1930’s and 40’s, Superman did fight Nazis, comic book creators did get ripped off by their publishers, and Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, and Judge Learned Hand did inhabit this time and space.  Chabon’s magic is as minute as St. Eulalia’s miracle, just a light snow that covered her martyred body.  A lost letter, a broken stove, a voice on the radio.

Josef Kavalier is 19 years old, the son of two doctors in Prague.  They are the sort of family that has a governess.  They are the sort of Jews trapped in Prague in 1939, except for Josef.  With lockpicks, card tricks, and two years of art school, Josef lands in New York and meets his Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay.

Josef in Prague was a juvenile half-failure, but Joe in New York is a superhero haunted by a dark past.  It’s impossible not to fall in love with Joe’s fevered genius and broken English.

Though Joe steals the show, it’s really sidekick Sammy who creates the Escapist.  Polio has left Sammy with pipe-cleaner legs, so Tom Mayflower is an ordinary boy with a crutch until the day he becomes the Escapist.  Joe’s life is lit by the single need to rescue his family, so the Escapist battles the Nazis with all the power that Joe doesn’t have.  Comics thread in and out of the story, as do art and history, because this is partly a book about comic books and partly a book that is a comic book, the inverse of a graphic novel, about small-time superheroes Kavalier and Clay.

Sam liked to declare…that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.


In 1939 the American comic book, like the beavers and cockroaches of prehistory, was larger and, in its cumbersome way, more splendid than its modern descendant.


In her immediate wake, the three young men stood there looking at one another, stunned, like cynics in the wake of an irrefutable miracle.


For some reason, the sight of these labels touched Josef.  The writing was as legible as if it had been typeset, each letter shod and gloved with serifs, the parentheses neatly crimped, the wavy hyphens like stylized bolts of lightning.  The labels had been lettered lovingly; his father had always expressed that emotion best through troubling with details.  In this fatherly taking of pains–in this stubbornness, persistence, orderliness, patience, and calm–Josef had always taken comfort.  Here Dr. Kavalier seemed to have composed, on his crates of strange mementos, a series of messages in the very alphabet of imperturbability itself.  The labels seemed evidence of all the qualities his father and family were going to require to survive the ordeal to which Josef was abandoning them.  With his father in charge, the Kavaliers and the Katzes would doubtless manage to form one of those rare households in which decency and order prevailed.  With patience and calm, persistence and stoicism, good handwriting and careful labeling, they would meet persecution, indignity, and hardship head-on.

But then, staring at the label on one crate, Josef felt a bloom of dread in his belly, and all at once he was certain that it was not going to matter one iota how his father and the others behaved.  Orderly or chaotic, well inventoried and civil or jumbled and squabbling, the Jews of Prague were dust on the boots of the Germans, to be whisked off with an indiscriminate broom.

St. Eulalia, John Waterhouse


5 responses to “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon) 5*

  1. That isn’t an Alma-Tadema painting by any chance, is it?

  2. Pingback: Ellpie Awards 2008 | Living by Fiction

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