It’s hard to know where to begin with a book like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s big in a lot of senses: 639 pages, spanning nearly 30 years across the lives of two men, and dealing with what the back of the book blurb calls “American possibility,” which really means a bunch of complex and difficult emotions, themes, and ideas that are hard to put into a single word, all of which are kind of not American.
The novel is essentially about two cousins, Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier, before, during, and after World War II. They are Jewish, and Joe is a refugee from overrun Czechoslovakia who smuggled+ himself out of Europe through the back door, traveling into Lithuania, across the Soviet Union, to Japan, and then across the USA from some unnamed port in the West to doorstep of his aunt, Ethel Klayman, mother of Samuel, who adopts the Americanized surname Clay. Somewhat by happenstance, the cousins get the opportunity to create a comic book shortly after the hit debut of Superman, and they deliver the widely successful Escapist superhero, modeled partly on Joe’s training as an escape artist in his youth.
As Germany’s grip on Europe tightens, Joe dedicates himself to freeing his family and, after many stunted attempts, finally manages to get his brother Tomas, aboard a ship from Lisbon, which is summarily sunk by a U-Boat. He also unknowingly knocks up the artistic girlfriend, Rosa Saks, whom he met at a party where Salvador Dali almost suffocated himself to death. Oops. Timing, right? Joe joins the Navy, desperate for a chance to kill Germans, but only ends up on a dead end Antarctic detail, during which all of his compatriots die. Meanwhile, Sam Clay is gay, and it sucks because it’s the 1940s. So he abandons his lover – the actor who played the Escapist in its radio incarnation – and marries Rosa and raises Joe’s son, Tommy (you know, because of the dead brother) while generally being repressed and miserable.
Sounds terrible, right? That’s part of the trouble I’m having writing this review. The book sounds convoluted, thin, and dull, but it’s not, of course. I wouldn’t have finished it if it were. 639 pages is long for something that sucks. Everything I can think to say about the book makes it sound terrible like, “It’s a story about ordinary people’s lives intersecting with extraordinary events,” and “It’s a glimpse into an America, innocent and corrupted, long gone now.” In reality, Kavalier & Clay is a finely crafted, expertly peopled, complex novel that deals with a lot of dark shadowy ideas that are still very much part of the common existence, but that’s a bit fuzzy and nebulous, so how about this:
This is a book about people who make comic books, but Chabon chooses to skip a lot of would-be adventuring. We see Joe’s preparations to escape subjugated Czechoslovakia, but not his time en-route. We see him in Antarctica, but not his subsequent wanderings. We see Sammy’s rise to success, but not his fall, not the ten years of conflicted self-denial and raising of someone else’s son with a woman he could be close friends with at best. That’s not necessarily bad, for those things collected would make a whole other novel. What it is, maybe, is a conscious decision on Chabon’s part to keep the creators of superheroes regular people. There will be no embodying your outlandish mythical creations around here, no sir. It would probably be too tempting for me to let the plot of the book spin out into something reflecting the plots the characters create for their comics, kind of like Adaptation, except most likely a lot worse. Thank God someone thought of this idea before me and saved us all.
Most of the critical responses to Kavalier & Clay pick out anyone of the innumerable themes, and they’re all right, kind of. The book is definitely “about” Jewishness and family and psychological escapism – which is why I say that the blurb’s claim that the books is about “American possibility” is false: none of those things are what you’d call “American” – but none make much of what really takes my attention, and that is the idea of unfulfilled dreams.
I mean, that’s what comic books are about, really, especially superhero stories: they are the creators’ fantasies of being something bigger and better than what any of us really are. They are our dreams, as children and adults, of simply beating the shit out of things we don’t like, the destruction of forces that threaten our lives and happiness. Yet each of the characters involved in this book, Sammy, Joe and Rosa, all of whom create comic books and superheroes, have nothing but frustrated dreams. Joe dreams of freeing his family, but fails. Then he dreams of vengeance, but when he finally kills a German – just one – it breaks his heart. Sammy dreams of being anyone but himself, but of course cannot. The best he can do is to create superheroes, which is no substitution at all.
There’s a danger, then, inherent in a book like this about things like that, that the ending will be nice and bright and hollywood. But rather than each of the characters finally realizing their aspirations, they adjust them to match reality instead, which is a lot more like how life works, is the opposite of “American,” and makes what would otherwise be a pretty wild story believable. The contrivances of the story are neutralized because, ultimately, they have no effect. Sammy doesn’t get to become a muscular successful hetero man in charge of his own destiny and Joe doesn’t become a vengeance-driven kraut-killing machine. They do not get what they fantasize about in their comic books but, perhaps, that doesn’t mean they can’t be at peace.